Sunday, November 13, 2011

Veteran

That day I woke up to the news that Richard Nixon had beaten Hubert Humphrey and would be our next president.  It was a singularly important day for me because as Commander in Chief, Richard Nixon would soon have a very big say in my life, starting in about six hours, when all was done and I was finally inducted, a draftee, into the United States Army.
I had slept little.  The streets I was walking on to the induction center were the same I had worked six months earlier documenting the great victory of McCarthy over Kennedy in that amazing 1968 presidential primary.  Dragging along, holding my little gym bag, the Encyclopedia Britannica definition of sorry-ass. 
The induction center was chaotic.  Someone was inside screaming and I could hear it from the sidewalk before I opened the door.  People with signs were standing around trying to talk with me.  Later that morning, someone opened the door and tossed in a balloon filled with red paint.
I had delayed this moment for college, service in the Peace Corps, my father’s long illness.  The notice came to me several times, but I did what was necessary to do what I wanted, or had to do.  Then, working at a film production company in Seattle, I got the notice again and flirted, for a few days, with another measure.  Ironically, one of the producers at the company was working on a piece about draft dodgers who had gone to Canada and I stood around the Moviola listening to his interviews as he edited, running the words through again and again. 

631st Infantry Division
I even went down to the Canadian Consulate and got forms to be a Landed Immigrant, though I knew in my heart I wasn’t going anywhere but into the United States Army.
Snow flakes were sprinkling down as we left Portland for Fort Lewis and basic training.  If you look up the winter of 1968/69, you will see descriptors like “record setting” or “landmark” to describe what was among the heaviest snowfalls ever in the Northwest. 

There is a lot of tension during the last week of basic training because soon everyone will know where they are going and, in most cases for how long.  The biggest unknown is what your MOS -- Mode of Service -- will be.  To be real, in the Army, everything needs a number, so it has given each job a code.  The one you don’t want to see is 11B, Light Weapons Infantryman or, equally disappointing, 11C, Indirect Fire Infantryman – mortar operator.  As a draftee, there is a significantly higher chance you will see the 11B because many of your fellow soldiers have traded an additional year of service for a safer MOS, say 31B, Military Police.  There’s some truth in the numbers.  Draftees serving in Vietnam were 25% of the troops and 30% of the dead.
When basic training was done, the barracks began emptying and people moved on.   Soon there were ten of us left, then 4, then, finally, me.   After an agonizing ten days, my letter came and according to the Army, since I possessed a civilian acquired skill, my number would be 84E, Television Cameraman.  I was on my way to Augusta, Georgia, where it was warm and where I would work producing educational television for the Army. 
I soon settled into a nice routine, working on shows like “Field Wire Relay Splicing,” “Why Vietnam?” and “Drugs, You and the Army.”  Linda became pregnant and we realized just how difficult it was without an air conditioner in August.  Even on my salary of $133 dollars/month, we bought one. 
We had many friends in the same pickle and we all shopped at the PX, bought discount beer, had cheap but entertaining dinners and waited warily for a letter that might come. 
One day, a busybody sergeant who was the administrator of our little production team, a guy who knew nothing about television and everything about the Army, came up and blurted out: 
“Royer, your MOS is all fucked up!  You’re not working as a cameraman, you are producing television.  I’ve sent in the paperwork to change your MOS to 71R, Television Producer.”
This was bad news.  I reasoned that if the Army hadn’t found my 84E and sent me to Vietnam after six months, they wouldn’t do it anytime soon and I was nearing the magical point of having less than a year left to serve, one year being the basic time of deployment in the combat zone.  
Surfacing a new MOS meant another scan by an Army mainframe.  And my reasoning was right.  Before a month was gone, I was called in and received my orders to produce television at the American Forces Vietnam Network in Saigon, Republic of Vietnam.

The Author, May, 1970
The rules then were much more straightforward than they are for America’s wars today.  Service in the combat zone was for one year.  Some people voluntarily extended their term in the combat zone.  The sports reader at the Army television station in Saigon spent several years presenting the sports news.  He was married to a Vietnamese woman, had a well-connected family and lived in a nice Saigon neighborhood.  Others re-upped for different reasons, but most stayed just a year.
Instant friendship is a hallmark of working at a war.  I spent a week hanging out with a helicopter medic in the Mekong Delta town of Can Tho.  There was a major hospital there and my job was to film medevac missions he flew in support of ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) troops. 

Neither of us subscribed to the fundamental propositions of why we and 550,000 other people had been transported to Vietnam.  So, I was knocked over by the response he gave to my question about how “short” he was, a term meaning how many months, days, hours, minutes it was before he boarded an aircraft in Saigon for the Oakland Army Base and separation.  He said he had just re-upped for another six months.  He told me he was pretty overwhelmed when he first came to Vietnam and thought he had done a poor job his first six months – the bloodiest, most dangerous time of the war, flying into landing zones surrounded by well-armed North Vietnamese Regulars.  He said he felt it was important to atone for not doing a better job.
I think of that selflessness and risk-taking when considering the strains put on the all volunteer military during the Ten Years War that began after 9/11.  There are, of course, no draftees, and so the National Guard and the Reserves became a more important part of the combat deployment.  In Vietnam, use of National Guard and Reserve units was relatively limited, about 9,000 National Guard served in Vietnam along with 20,000 or so Reserves.  Comparatively, across the ten year span of the Vietnam War, 3,000,000 troops served in-country.  However, in the Middle East, the Guard and Reserves have made up 40% of the US Troop deployment.  And, unlike Vietnam, the term of service in the combat zone has been unclear.  Many had their one year deployments extended and the Defense Department’s goal of a one year deployment out of six years of service has not been met, leading to second, third and even fourth deployments of individuals. 
There have been about 1.4 million people deployed in the Mideast since 2001.  Of that number, 42% were deployed twice and 13% were deployed three times.  Four percent, nearly 50,000 people, deployed four times.
The American Forces Health Surveillance Center, which keeps extensive health data on US military personnel, reports that additional deployments increase significantly the frequency of post traumatic stress, depression and other mental disorders.  The research also showed that “dwell times”, those periods between one deployment and another, also have an effect on mental disorders -- the longer the dwell time, the more severe the mental reaction to the deployment.
Overall, the September 2010 Medical Surveillance Report cites service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan as having self-reported PTSD symptoms 9% of the time and depression symptoms more than 27% when asked 90-180 days after deployment.
The fact that National Guard and Reserves are deployed in such numbers and tend to be older and with more established families and children, brings the war home more frequently to the 220,000 children of deployed military as well as their 1.1 million spouses.  The American Forces Health Surveillance Center reports:
"The cumulative impact of multiple deployments is associated with more emotional difficulties among military children and more mental health diagnoses among spouses.  A 2010 study reports an 11% increase in outpatient visits for behavioral health issues among a group of 3-8 year old children of military parents and an increase of 18% in behavioral disorders and a 19% increase in stress disorders when a parent is deployed."
Coming home is as much a part of the military experience as leaving it.  A little bit of war rubs off on children, families and friends and the gravitational pull of it alters careers, marriages and outlooks.  What my friend in Can Tho was willing to do and what our volunteer army demonstrates today is inspirational, but it might not be exactly the right thing to do.  These limited objective wars may be pushing the idea of citizen soldiers too hard, putting too much pressure on the citizen by overburdening the soldier.  It may require some other kind of strategy, perhaps some kind of national service concept, to spread around the impacts. 
It is simply not in the best interest of our democracy to have one percent of the country working that long and hard to defend the other 99%.

Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center Must look at this.
American Forces Vietnam Newsletter
Audio Archive of AFVN Broadcasts

3 comments:

  1. Actually, it is the 99% working for the 1%. That is what war is all about. Making money for the 1% corporate military defense industry.That is the message of OCCUPY WALL STREET.
    You did not mention The Lie - the lie about why we were and are being sent far away to kill people that don't look like us. So the rich can get richer.
    PTSD is also much more rampant than you mention. Try 90%. Suicides in Iraq were so bad that one month every day some soldier tried to kill himself/herself. Many succeeded. The military will not release the suicide rates. The Oregonian stopped listing the wounded a couple years ago.
    I want to continue getting your blogs but they are quite sanitized.
    Jenika/Sharon Ury

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  2. My brother, Jay Sedlik, USAF LT. COL. RET., just died of a cancer directly related to Agent Orange. He was a motion picture officer and serve two tours in Vietnam. He edited dailies of all the missions for daily executive review - and he flew combat missions.

    This is part of what I'll be saying at his memorial in December before he's interred in the Arlington National Cemetery in February:

    Jay died soldiering a fight against the cancer he got fighting as a soldier.
    I’m outraged that his commitment to service led to his death, no matter how much delayed. Jay died early. Although his name will not be on THE WALL with 58,000 combat fatalities, in his delayed death, he joins over 120,000 similarly unheralded Vietnam War warrior victims. Jay died early because he was loyal, trustworthy, and brave. He died because he loved model airplanes, tying knots, and becoming a Boy Scout.
    That’s a shock I’ll carry to my grave.

    The unknown long term aftermath of our current wars will fill our culture for decades. These soldiers have higher suicide and divorce rates than those in the same demographic. The spouses (both genders) and their children are scarred for life, and the "coming home" tradition has been shattered by our diverted economy.

    We have an all-volunteer service only because we have to - these wars would be over in a minute if the service used the draft. Generally, these volunteer soldiers take the path of least resistance - they, as a cohort, have fewer options and, frankly less interest or capacity for more intellectually-dependent choices. This 1% defends the 99% because they have self-selected to serve. These service people are, indeed, a new isolated demographic with more in common with each other than with the 99% they protect.

    They are instead fodder for the elitists who fail at diplomacy and use military activities as a persuader for our impotent "decider" and his directive cronies (see today's Doonseberry December 20, 2011).

    In the end, we honor the soldier for their commitment to serve as we defame the 'committers' who demand when and where they serve.

    earl@sedlik.com

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    Replies
    1. My condolences to you for the AO death of your brother. Thousands have died like your brother from Agent Orange. It is a wasting disease. Vietnam's soil and water still contain AO and hideous birth defects continue to plague Vietnamese births 50 years later. The United States government continues to ignor this fact and have taken no steps to cleaning up their mess in this country. ADL, hazardous chemicals PTSD, and suicide continue to take thousands more.
      Iraq, Afghanistan, and the "Stans" veterans (euphemistically re-named "Post 9/11 Veterans") were committing suicide every day. (TIME magazine, July 23, 2012)) What were they experiencing that was so horrible? The sanitized news media gives us only smiling vets returning home to loving, happy families - how very misleading.
      Our current Vets are and will be dying later - from depleted uranium (DU) which is sniffed directly into the brain when they fire their weapons, esp. mortars. The PTSD rate is astronomical like drug, alcohol, spousal abuse, divorce and mental problems.
      When will Americans wake up and see that soldiers are used for corporate and Wall Street gain and our Empire's desire to conquer and control more land for profit and power and resources. When will people stop spouting this "freedom and democracy crap" and see war for what it is. Iraq (oil) and Afghanistan (minerals) are perfect examples. We are already secretly in Syria (oil pipeland) and planning to bomb the peaceful country of Iran (oil and positioning). The military-industrial complex is out of control and beyond outrageous. These for-profit wars will continue until enough Americans wake up to how they have and are being used and subsequently disarded. Will our country's fragile economy last that long?

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