We - nearly fifty young men – stood huddled in a chilly, damp darkness fearful to move. We stood tall, forming a human rectangle four shoulders wide and twelve persons long. We were bunched as if waiting for the gates of a sold-out concert to open. At our feet rested small duffels – none large enough to hold a weekend's road trip of belongings. Yet, God willing, we would be in our current location for the next six weeks.
We stood alone in the darkness. The sound of the bus that dropped us there had long since faded into the night. No one looked around beyond the extent to which they could strain their eyes left and right. No one moved. No one spoke. No one dared. But what was there to say? None of us knew the others; we had been gathered from around the country and tossed together, meeting just that evening. Some even came from overseas; Guam, Puerto Rico. Some of us came from the hardworking midwest. Others from the hard streets of Los Angeles. White. Black. Hispanic. Jewish. Catholic. Good-'ole boys from the south. Cowboys. And then there was Mr. Diep, a Vietnamese man who became a U.S. citizen after escaping Vietnam and felt obligated to pay this country back for what it had already given him; his safety and freedom. The only common denominators were we were all males, all between eighteen and twenty-six years old, and had all volunteered to be standing in that dark parking lot that night.
The minutes passed slowly. Some dared to shift their weight from foot to foot, but most did not. In the tight huddle our breath, nervous perspiration, deodorant, and aftershave all mixed with the dewy air we breathed. After twenty or thirty minutes it seemed silly to adhere so strictly to the orders we were given before the bus pulled away, but adhere we did.
After forty-five minutes, trapped in that prison without walls, some did begin to stir. Heads turned ever so slightly. Opinions were sought from neighbors in the most whispered of voices. Aching knees were flexed almost imperceptibly. But these small movements, multiplied by our group of forty-plus bodies, took on enormous proportions in the silent and still air of the early morning hours of September 24th, 1982. The movement and whispers crept into the crowd slowly, but ended abruptly with the first click from the outlying darkness.
The clicks moved in from behind.
And then silence.
The clicks moved no closer, but moved parallel to our flank.
More silence. Longer this time.
Impossibly, the clicks had moved to our other flank. Nearly fifty strong, our group was held silent and motionless by clicks no louder than a car door locking.
The clicks came slowly, deliberately. We were prey, and we were being studied. The darkness concealed our stalker but we were clearly in its sights.
Then came a command; quiet, paced, clearly spoken in the damp air of a Texas night, "Pick. Up. Your. Bags." It was nearly whispered yet produced immediate results. Within seconds of the command we were all once more upright, silent and stiff in our individual interpretations of "attention," clutching our gym bag of underwear, aftershave, razors and shower shoes.
The stalking continued. The clicks, from behind now, grew closer and then stopped. Had anyone taken the chance to look our stalker would have been revealed. No one looked.
The steps retreated into the darkness. Minutes passed. I don't know how many. Many.
Our small bags grew heavy. Our grip on them grew weak. Our knees trembled from equal parts fear, cold and fatigue. Our shoulders sagged.
"Drop your bags."
The bags landed like a muffled drum roll at our feet. Our arms, shoulders, and hands were relieved but our minds raced. What was this game? How long would it go on? What am I doing here? Can I just proclaim this a terrible mistake – a stupid decision – and go home?
"Pick up your bags."
The command was issued from a much closer distance but in a much more hushed tone. Yet we all heard it over our own thoughts. Or maybe we reacted instinctively to the movement of the one person who actually did hear it. Were we already responding as a group rather than individuals?
I enjoyed some security from my position inside the huddled group. I could not fall prey unexpectedly to this menace – my neighbor must be taken first.
From the shadows a black man emerged; tall, thin, crisply dressed in a blue, tailored uniform. Jutting jaw, eyes that sought revenge, trooper hat tilted forward on his brow. His polished black shoes reflected the street lights like focused beams of light. Metal taps affixed to the heel and toe of each shoe explained the clicks that heightened our fear. Unquestionably they had been attached with intent. In a quiet tone he identified himself as Staff Sergeant Trigg and told us he was our mother for the next six weeks. "Those of you" he added, "that I allow to last six weeks."
This was my first night of Air Force basic training. I survived the full six weeks. Some did not. It wasn't the physical demands that drove people out, but the mental demands. One day I was assigned to escort an Airman from clinic to clinic, finally leaving him in the Behavioral Wing of the Air Force Hospital before returning to my dorm. He had swallowed a bottle cap on a dare but clearly had other issues.
Another squadron member was sent to a different Flight – one that began training a few weeks after ours had – for remedial training. It was called the the "duffel bag drag" and everyone feared it may happen to them. Another member of our flight was kept from marching in our graduation parade – he could not keep his head from bobbing around and it was as obvious as a corn stalk in soy bean field.
In the course of the six week training period I learned first hand how authority protects authority. One day I stood before Sergeant Trigg while the sharp end of his scissors, and his eyes, threatened my well-being in a very real way. He had been under inspection by his superiors and they were not happy to learn that I had been assigned, by Sgt. Trigg, two different support roles in the Flight. This was the first time, but not the last, that I would see honesty punished by an individual or individuals who were protecting their careers or the careers of others.
I am a veteran. I am proud of the service I performed and bothered by the treatment both active duty military personnel and veterans are provided. I don't think there is a veteran alive that wouldn't trade the fanfare of a parade, the acknowledgement of a stadium full of football fans, or the well-meaning "thanks" of a individual citizen for the true appreciation and respect of the establishment we served.
There should be no vets being denied medical treatment for chemical exposure experienced in the course of their service. There should be no need for Congressional inquiries into the horrendous care provided at Veterans Administration hospitals. There should be no sexual assaults covered up to protect decorated officers, historied units, or "traditions." There should be no need for whistle blowers – certainly no need to protect them. Those that bring shame should be the ones shamed, not those who bring the shame to light. I should have never seen an honest, career-oriented friend speak seriously of murdering his squadron's First Sergeant. But I understood. His career was being ended, two years shy of retirement benefits, to protect the career of the person who had done wrong.
On November 11th I will have a choice of restaurants where I can get a free meal. I will be thanked by people that have no idea what I did or why I did it. In the past I have been invited to stand up in crowded auditoriums to be acknowledged as a vet. I don't think I ever did. I do not need to be thanked for doing something I volunteered to do. I just wish there had been some respect, while I was actively serving, from the institution I volunteered to serve.
Do you really want to thank a veteran? Then write your Congressman and tell them you expect our active duty personal – who have volunteered to face untold hazards simply because they are told to – be lead by people with the same high moral character they demand from each eighteen-year-old enlisted person they have in their charge.
Lackland Air Force Base, San Antonio, TX
Air Force Basic Training
Physical Training Monitor
Lowry Air Force Base, Denver, Colorado
Technical School Honor Graduate
Offered the opportunity to stay on as an instructor
Minot Air Force Base, Minot, North Dakota
5th Munition Maintenance Squadron
5th MMS Airman of the Month
5th Bomb Wing Airman of the Month
Recommended for early promotion
Andersen Air Force Base, Guam
43rd Munition Maintenance Squadron
Honorably Discharged – "In-adaptable to Military Life" – for writing my Congressman. "Whistle blower" is the generic classification and a fraudulent psychiatric diagnoses is the tool used to initiate the discharge. Mine was "Immature Personality Disorder."