He was automatically out of place. Awkward, geeky, a little bit too outgoing. The drill sergeants had an awful time trying to instill discipline in Ken. But, that’s understandable because no one had ever yelled and screamed at him before.
We were in the first week of Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) Basic at Fort Knox, Kentucky. The drill sergeants’ task was to mold a bunch of college kids into future leaders of soldiers. To do that, they had to treat us worse than soldiers; their job was to humble us, and they were good at it.
Ken was a student from Yale University. An Ivy Leaguer stood out like a sore thumb in a harsh environment like Fort Knox. Ivy League colleges have traditionally been places where the future leaders of our country are created. Not since World War II have Ivy Leaguers joined the military in large numbers. But, that will be covered later in the post.
My new friend told me that he’d been driving to campus one day and saw a bunch of Army Reservists boarding a bus on their way to some training event. Ken became intrigued when he saw these Army soldiers and thought: “What the heck? Let’s do it!” He made a detour toward the bus and asked an officer where he could get information on enlisting. The officer referred him to the ROTC office at a nearby college. Two months later, he was standing in front of me while I showed him for the third time how to make his bunk. Why the drill sergeant thought I should be the one to teach him was beyond me; I sure as hell wasn’t good at it.
In addition to attending Yale, Ken had graduated from a prep school. You know, one of those centuries-old, elitist places where they train kids to talk like this:
“Oooh, my Gawd, Buffy! Those dreadful people from the city are here, and they’ve eaten all the truffles! Next time, if we could bring our own truffles, that would be greaaat.”
“Consuela, fetch us another highball, would you?”
Ken had always had maids pick up after him when he was growing up. He seemed a little embarrassed by this. “Oh, I’m telling you”, he said. “I’m totally clueless! Ha ha ha!”
Yeah, I’d be clueless too, if all I did was play polo the first 20 years of my life…
A colonel came to our barracks to inspect us and our bunks, etc. He stood in front of Ken and asked him if he was satisfied with the food served in the mess hall.
“Oh, sheer ambrosia, Colonel! Nectar of the gods! Almost as good as the provisions at my school. Ha ha ha!”
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see our drill sergeant. He looked like he’d been gut shot.
Our training company was designated Bravo Company. While marching, the drill sergeant would call cadence: “Your left, your right!” When our right feet hit the ground, we had to yell in unison: “Your Bravo!” Which we did. Except Ken. Instead, he would raise his hand and yell “BRAVO”, like you would if you really, REALLY enjoyed an opera or a ballet performance. Ken took a lot of abuse from many cadets. We all felt like he didn’t belong there.
And then, we all started to realize it: this guy is turning his back on a life of privilege and creature comforts, to eat and live outdoors for the next 6 years while he fulfilled his military obligation. He volunteered to join, when he didn’t have to.
Kinda cool. We stopped making fun of him.
Ken later told me that his uncle-a Harvard grad-had served in the Marines in the Pacific during World War II. He remembered his uncle telling him that being a citizen of this country, to attend a prestigious university, to receive a world-class education, to live a life of luxury, it wasn’t free. To be rich, free and alive all at once, there was a price to be paid. And you paid with military service.
During World War I, so many Ivy Leaguers felt this way that they dropped out of school to do what Ken and his uncle did. They fought in the brutal trench warfare in France and Belgium and began dying by the hundreds. President Wilson and Congress were so concerned that all the future leaders of our country were ending up in European graves that they initiated a military draft. Now farmers and mechanics were being called up for service so that Ivy League students would be spared to head the government and lead industry.
After Pearl Harbor, so many young men enlisted to serve in the military that anyone who didn’t was labeled a coward. There were cases where men who were found to be unfit for military service committed suicide out of shame. Pretty damn drastic, but you get the idea. People back then recognized that to live in this country, and to benefit from it was a privilege.
What a far cry from the Vietnam era, or today for that matter.
To read more about this issue, I recommend a book written by two people who didn’t serve in the current conflicts but had skin in the game. One was the father of a Marine, and the other the wife of one: http://amzn.to/2o9ForY
Disclaimer: I am not trying to come across as self-righteous and preachy. Not everyone is cut out for military service. People can serve in other ways, like in their community. My own career was not exactly stellar. I’m just another American who served his country.
Finally, no good blog post would be complete without a Dead Guy Quote:
“Those who do not do battle for their country do not know with what ease they accept their citizenship in America.” –Dean Brelis, author of The Face of South Vietnam, included in the closing credits of the movie, We Were Soldiers.