"September 19th, 1967"
That’s when it happened. The place was Oakland, California. The "Summer of Love" was coming to a close in Haight-Ashbury across the Bay. On that September morning before a noisy crowd of antiwar protesters I entered the “Oakland Induction Center” to be sworn into the U.S. Army. It was the height of the Vietnam war and the Oakland Induction Center had become a major lightning rod for the anti-war protests. The following month Joan Baez and her mother would be arrested there. Many of us teenagers entering that building would soon be heading to Vietnam.
I was fresh out of high school, eighteen and barely out of puberty. I hadn’t been “scooped up” by the draft like so many others but had willingly volunteered for a three-year stint in the “Green Machine”. I was young, immature and clueless and had signed up for airborne infantry. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Like so many of my fellow teenagers, I had grown up reveling in the exploits of our father's generation in WWII. Most of us had been steeped in the patriotic idealism of America, flag waving and mom's apple pie. We had been stirred by the sacrificial heroism of John Wayne and "The Sands of Iwo Jima". For many of us, war seemed like an intoxicating adventure. Each of us clung to that naïve illusion of invincibility and immortality so common to young men. We thought we were bulletproof. Few of us thought that anything bad would ever happen to us. It always happens to the "other guy". Boy were we in for a rude awakening! Most of us would soon lose our youthful innocence in a place called “Vietnam”.
In March, 1968, at the tail-end of the infamous “Tet Offensive”, I found myself as an adolescent infantryman with the 1st Air Cavalry Division in the Republic of Vietnam – known to those who were there as “The Armpit", "Disneyland East" and "The Valley of The Shadow of Death". My romantic notions of war had faded during my combat training and the lethal realities of war had begun to settled in. For many, the rarefied atmosphere of combat has a clarifying effect when it came to one's mortality and the haunting specter of eternity.
One dark night in a muddy foxhole on the perimeter of our firebase I stared into the blackness and the unknown. A blowing drizzle had pelted our line for the last hour but had stopped. I sat there shivering in the damp chill of the central highlands as I watched the front. Irritating puffs of mosquitoes had returned with a vengeance darting about my head in search of exposed patches of skin on which to feed. As I stared into the darkness, shadows in the razor-wire played tricks with my mind. I was struggling to stay alert when the sudden “boom” of 105's sounded from the rear and the locomotive rush of rounds passing overhead punctuated the stillness. It was there in the slop and rain-soaked misery of that fighting hole that I had my own personal, wakeup call with what we called "P & P's" - "Prayers & Promises". On that dark night in Vietnam, I prayed to God and promised Him that if He got me out of there alive, I would serve him.
My tour of duty was eventually cut short when I was medevaced from our firebase in the central highlands of Vietnam. I was flown to “Camp Zama Army Hospital” in Tokyo. After a month to stabilize my condition I was medevaced to “Letterman General Hospital” at the Presidio in San Francisco. I had entered the army the previous year in Oakland across the bay and now I faced five more months of hospitalization before I was medically discharged.
Through the hardships of Vietnam to the months of agonizing transit through a hellish world of maimed and disfigured men I had come to a place of brokenness myself. Those months had been a time of subtle preparation. God had been with me each step of the way laying the groundwork for the consequences of my promise and another army He was calling me to. In the years to come, I would find myself fighting on many battlefields - not in the rice paddies or jungles of Vietnam but on a spiritual battlefield with its own sacrifices, hardships and suffering.
Fifty-three years later, I am no longer young, and I am no longer clueless. Looking back, I can honestly say that both tours of duty were worth the sacrifice!