by Chuck Yarling
I recently read an article entitled, “Inside the Pentagon’s shameful effort to draft mentally disabled men to fight in Vietnam.” After reading this report, it didn’t take much time for me to realize I was most likely involved with a soldier whom I believed was one of the men in this article. Here is my story.
After graduating from Fort Knox High School, KY, I attended Southwest Texas State College and entered AFROTC. After two years, I transferred to The University of Texas in Austin, Texas, to begin working on my engineering degree. This was a lifelong goal that I had previously decided after my dad took me to an engineering open house at UT when I was seven years old. At the time, I was living at Bergstrom AFB in Austin (now known as “Austin-Bergstrom International Airport” and my dad was stationed at San Marcos Air Force Base.
Because of difficulties with my studies, I had to change my major and ended up graduating in 1968 with a B.A. in Math. So because of the degree change, I lost my commission from AFROTC. But now, I was looking at being drafted, so I went ahead and registered with the Selective Service System on May 10.
However, I wanted to have some say in my future, so I went to an Army recruiter in San Antonio and told him I wanted to be an Intelligence Officer. I learned later that this plan would take me to Advanced Infantry Training (AIT) at Fort Holabird in Maryland and Infantry Officer Candidate School (OCS) at Fort Benning. Unfortunately, life didn’t work out the way I had planned, as you shall soon see.
So, as the summer was beginning to end, I joined the Army on August 17, 1968. I reported to Fort Polk for eight weeks of infantry basic training and was assigned to Company C, First Battalion, First Training Brigade. There were four soldiers in my platoon who had recently joined the National Guard. Three of them were made Squad Leaders of 2, 3, and 4, and a fourth one was assigned to be our Platoon Leader. Because of my four years of AFROTC, I was chosen to be the Squad Leader of Squad 1.
Very soon after arriving, First Sergeant Johnson, ranking NCO of our platoon, pulled me aside and asked me to look after Richard, a recruit whom he assigned to my squad. My job was to watch after him and assist him whenever I could. Sgt. Johnson told me that Richard had slashed his wrists in the holding company while being processed for transfer to our company. At the time, he still had bandages on his wrist.
Needless to say, I was surprised that he was still here in the Army instead of being sent home. I mean, “Really?” I was thinking to myself, “Was he actually fit enough to be in the military?”
Regardless, I said nothing to anyone who asked about him or his injury, as it was, IMHO, no one else’s business. I also made sure that no other soldier would bother him.
And I did look after him as we progressed through basic training. And I’m sure that 99% of those who underwent their own basic training can remember their experiences like I had some fifty-five years ago.
Sergeant Johnson, the NCO of our platoon, was a Vietnam Veteran and a true ball-buster. For example, in the middle of the night on Saturday of our first week, he came onto the first floor of our barracks finding our foot lockers open and their belongings from them strewn across the floor. Then he aroused everyone in our barracks and started yelling at us and asking why our floor was so messed up. Well, of course, at the time, we didn’t know that he was responsible for that mess but that didn’t matter to us.
After all of us were standing at attention beside our bunks, he finally yelled for all of us go outside. Once there, he had everyone low crawl around our barracks except we four squad leaders and platoon leader who ended up watching the circus. He then told us, “if this happens again, the five of us would be low crawling around the barracks while the rest of our platoon soldiers watched us.” Yep, you guessed it, as that very thing indeed happened one week later.
I do have one pleasant memory of this time at Fort Polk. During our first week, we were led outside by several Vietnam Veteran corporals and sergeants, and started to run our asses for some distance. Afterward, we could barely walk and were basically out of breath. However, near the end of that eight-week regimen of basic training, about the same personnel took us out for our last run. When we were done, we all looked at each other and said, “We’re done? That was nothing, was it?” I remember this story like it was yesterday.
All during these eight weeks of basic training, I was mentoring, encouraging, and watching over Richard. To be honest I don’t have any specific memories of my actions with him during these weeks of training.
We all graduated near the first week of October and several of us, including Richard, hopped on a plane going to Ft Leonard-Wood, MO. for Combat Engineering AIT. Once there, I was sent to Co. D, 2nd Bn, First AIT Brigade (Pioneer). Needless to say, this was not going to get me to become an Intelligence Officer.
That idea had been scratched from my future by my recruiter as because it was now obvious that I was headed to Combat Engineering OCS at Fort Belvoir, VA. And that certainly was not what the recruiter had promised.
I later wondered if that kind of thing happened to other recruits he had signed up. Regardless, that was the way it was and I had to learn to live with it!
Unfortunately, the last I saw of Richard was onboard that plane. I have no idea what happened to him. I can only hope he was discharged and allowed to go home. In my opinion, that was where he needed to be. Otherwise, he would have completed AIT and gone to Vietnam like I was sometime later!
And, today, after reading that article, thinking Richard ended up going to Vietnam was not a pleasant thought.
Spec 5, US Army
HQ Co., 26th Combat Engineering Bn.
Chu Lai, Vietnam (1969-1970)
As the Voice of the Veteran Community, The Havok Journal seeks to publish a variety of perspectives on a number of sensitive subjects. Unless specifically noted otherwise, nothing we publish is an official point of view of The Havok Journal or any part of the U.S. government.