28 May 2014


I'm writing this over the Memorial Day weekend, which is perhaps coincidence, and perhaps not. I was prompted to it by an exchange I had with my pal Michael Parnell. We're both vets, but our service is a generation apart, me back in Cold War Berlin, Michael a few years ago in the Sandbox. The age difference aside, there's a common thread.

The second thing was a widely-circulated post on Facebook, where a young woman said that people join the military because they can't get into college. I know we shouldn't take this too seriously, but as you can imagine, her comment excited a NSFW barrage. She's an easy target, for sure, but instead of just calling her a dumb bunny---I'm softening the kind of language that was actually used---it might suit us better to address her misinformation with a more reasoned response. So here goes.

After the Civil War, the U.S. Army drastically downsized, and the men who stayed in were widely thought to be the dregs. It didn't help that a lot of the enlisted personnel were Irish, who already had a name for being drunk and undisciplined. John Ford makes a running joke of this in FORT APACHE, for example, but the truth is darker. Marcus Reno, a major under Custer at the Little Bighorn, was later reprimanded and dismissed from the Army. The proximate cause was drunkenness, but he had a long history of conduct unbecoming. Reno was a poster boy. There were other officers unsuitable for command, just as there were many more who attended to duty, but the damage was done. In the public eye, the prevailing wisdom was that people chose a military career because they were losers, or scoundrels, or unfit for any other life.

Something similar happened after the First World War, when again the services were severely reduced, and more than a few senior officers doubted America's readiness to fight another war. Not that anybody wanted another war. The general sympathy was Isolationism, and our foreign policy contracted along with our military capacity. This isn't to say we should have kept millions of men under arms, but it took the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor to demonstrate our vulnerability. The world was wider than we liked.

On the other hand, the Second World War brought a change in attitude. My own feeling is that it's because the country was totally mobilized to meet the threat. Afterwards, when guys like my dad came home to pick up their lives, neither did they turn their backs on those who chose to stay on active service. One of our neighbors on the block, when I was a kid growing up in Cambridge, was an Army colonel named Trevor Dupuy. West Point, Burma campaign. He was taking a post-grad course at Harvard (and later taught there), but the point is that nobody in my dad's circle found any fault with Dupuy's making the Army his career, or thought any the less of him for it.

Viet Nam. Another turn of the wheel. The doubts set in early. I went into the Air Force in '64---partly to avoid the draft, I admit---but the climate was different. Most of the guys my age I knew were only too happy to stay in school and take the college deferment. They didn't want to be cannon-fodder. Who could blame them? The issue that arose, though, was that too many of them thought the military was for slackers and fools, or anybody dumb enough to buy the snake oil. It was a shitty war, of course, and the political divisions on the home front were savage. If you didn't live through those times, it's hard to conjure up just how fierce it got. And memory is selective. It's convenient to forget that quite a few GI's who came back alive from combat were treated with contempt by some.

I have an embarrassment of my own to confess. I got to Berlin in March of '65, after nine months of Russian language school. I was nineteen. Like most kids that age, there wasn't anything you could teach me. Open ass, and insert head, in other words. Here, though, a word of explanation. It was a spook shop, and a highly selective crew. Smart, analytical, independent thinking encouraged, a specialized skill-set. Not too many made the cut. But we were too smart for our own good, or at least I was. The first time I met my NCOIC, a master sergeant named Ernie Soto, he didn't impress me much. (Which is of course the cart before the horse. It was my job to impress Ernie.) I was too full of myself to read him right.

We called them Lifers. We, meaning first-term enlisted. They already had a couple of enlistments under their belt, or they wouldn't have made senior NCO rank. But we were young punks, and to us, anybody who'd re-upped and stayed in the service was an also-ran or a has-been. It's not like you don't run across time-servers and goldbricks, they come with the territory in any line of work, and once in a while you get saddled with a real bum, but mostly, that's the exception. NCO's do the heavy lifting. They know the mission, they have the authority and the responsibility. And in Berlin, particularly, they were the pick of the litter. Ernie Soto, for instance, was one of the first two candidates selected for the Boston University master's program, which was extremely competitive, so no matter what I thought of him, he was no dope.

Here's what you learn about these guys. When you get to know them better, you find out they're not all cut from the same cloth. And if you ask them why, why go career, why not something better?---to your way of thinking---they come up with an oddly evasive set of answers. Good benefits, and I can retire on half-pay after twenty, one of them might say. Someone else will tell you: my family travels with me, I get free dependent housing, it covers school costs for the kids. Or a more straightforward, thoughtful answer. It's fascinating work, and how else would I get to see Germany, or Japan? All this is true, and you can see the appeal, but here's what you don't hear from them. It's an obligation. It matters. I make a difference.

Because, in the end, it's not about creature comfort, or benefits. It's about duty. They might not put it this way. That's too cornball. You say it out loud, it sounds self-important, or suspect, and overly conspicuous. You're some kind of big deal, advertising yourself.

6912th Security Squadron, Berlin, a short list. Jim Nelson. Ed Allen. Mick Amos. Tom Hill. Dean Hanson. Lifers, by choice. My respects.  

DEG - Tempelhof, late 1960's - photo: John Clay



  1. Good and interesting piece, David. Isn't it wonderful how much smarter people become as we grow older? Even my dad got surprisingly multi-faceted with age. Of course, had I been wiser, I would have seen it much sooner.

    Coincidently, my next blog deals with my time in Germany, too. We have much in common, I think.

  2. David, thanks for saying what needed to be said.

  3. Good column, David. This brought back memories--I was in the Air Force from '70 to '74.

  4. Time on Target, buddy!

    Reminded me of a recruiting poster that struck a chord with me. It was a simple photo of nearly worn-out jungle boots, laces untied and splayed out across the floor, the upper half of one boot flopped limply over as if it had just been kicked off. The caption beneath read: "I was there, U.S. Army."


  5. Damn, David, according to the photo, you were a good-looking guy in the 60's, but then I don't look like I did in the 60's either.

    As for your article, well said. And yep, back then I referred to anyone who re-upped as a lifer. I did my 2 years, 9 months and 29 days, then took an early out to go back to college. Got serious the second time around on higher education cuz the army got my head straight. Now it's my personal opinion that everyone should do two years of mandatory military service. Pacifists can always be medics or clerks, or... Freedom isn't free and people need to learn there are no free rides for liberty and rights. But then politicians also need to be very accountable for where our troops are sent.

  6. I grew up in California in the 60's, and between the boys going out and the boys coming home, the protests and the jingoists, the pressure to go (draft board knocking at the door) and the pressure to flee (deferments, Canada, etc.), you're right, you had to be there to understand how crazy it was. My husband was East Coast urban working class; his high school had a graduating class of over 1,000; 60% died in Vietnam. (He had orders to Nam, but he was a good cook and the naval base kept him.) The death toll was frighteningly high in one area; almost none in another. It was crazy.

  7. Great piece.

    Many of my high classmates and myself joined the military after high school so we could go to college on the GI Bill. Some remained in the Air Force and Navy and became lifers.

  8. Very poignant reflection, David. Very.

  9. I know whereof you speak. I was 6912th Communications OIC 10/66 to 8/69. The move to Marienfelde occurred on my watch. The comm van out back and comm center as well as CRS Berlin were mine. Majs. Bjorkland and Brigman were contemporaries. Knew Sgt. Soto. Other names you may know...Alan Aldrich, Bob Drew, Charles Evans, Robert Stark, Jack Ferrell, Robert Hartley, Sgt. Paciencia, Ben Mann...and on and on.

    Nice memories.

    Thank you,

    Spencer Hendron
    Maj., USAF Ret.

    PS I went through the BU Masters program as well.

    1. I just saw my father's name (David Brigman) mentioned above. We were in Berlin from 1967 - 1970 and he passed away in 2014.


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