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Part 1 of n: From High School to Riot Control

Written by Jeff Drake
4 · 17 · 24

Part 1 of n: From High School to Riot Control

When I began my blog website I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to write about. Sure, I knew that my hobbies like travel, photography, philosophy and genealogy would provide ample material, but when it comes to real personal stuff, I wasn’t sure what, if anything, I was willing to share publicly. I do believe there is such a thing as “over-sharing!” And I don’t want to be “that guy.” Yet, I feel some of my personal experiences are tales worth retelling. Will anyone find them worth reading? I won’t know until I try.

So, I’m going to dig into my military past, specifically some experiences I had in Vietnam during the war. I’m aware that some of you reading this will be tempted to judge me on what you find here. More power to you. There would be no point in me apologizing for actions taken so many years ago. I am not a perfect man, as my wife and close friends can attest to. I’ve made my share of mistakes. Some of what I am about to share is going to be new, even for my friends who have heard me discuss the war over the years. Yet, so many of these experiences have been lost, whether due to drugs, aging, or repressed memories, I don’t know. Probably a bit of all of these, right?

I don’t think it’s a big secret that I made use of illegal drugs in Vietnam. What some of you may not know is that I didn’t arrive in Vietnam ready to do drugs. My high school friends remember, of course, that when I went to Vietnam in July of 1970, I was Mr. Straight-arrow. Doing any kind of illicit drug could not have been farther from my mind. I was going to be an Army military policeman, so I was going to bust drug offenders, not become one! LOL! Flash forward two years later and suddenly I find myself in a drug rehab center in Cam Rahn Bay, Vietnam, tripping on acid. Whoa! So what the fuck happened, right? Good question. I never thought you’d ask.

So follow me on this brief trip down memory lane…

I arrived in Vietnam on July 21st, 1970, dead set against anyone smoking pot. Back home in Duluth, I had been fed a steady diet of political Kool-Aid promoting the war in Vietnam distributed daily via the evening news. There was no doubt in my mind that the communist menace was invading South Vietnam, and that if we didn’t stop them in Vietnam they would eventually invade other countries, including the US. I further believed that the friendly South Vietnamese government represented the good guys and North Vietnam, the bad guys. It sure all seemed rather cut and dry. I knew that our leaders wouldn’t lie to us about something so important. My innocence then strikes me now as both touching and tragic. If I only knew then what I know now.

In my senior year of high school my friends were all planning on going to college after graduation, an option that wasn’t open to me, due to the fact that there was no way I could pay for it. The previous year I had been planning on entering a Trappist monastery. I even visited New Melleray Abbey in Iowa. While there I met with a number of monks, including the abbot.  Apparently, my desire to be a Trappist monk, which Catholics refer to as a “calling,” was rather convincing, as the abbot told me they had decided to offer me a draft deferment. He also said that if I accepted, I would be the first person to receive a draft deferment from the Trappists since just after WWII. I went home to think about it and eventually decided that I needed to learn more about the world before making such a commitment. (There’s more to this story, but it will have to wait for another time).

Although only 18, I knew that I wanted to be somewhat in control of my destiny with regard to military service, which meant volunteering for military service rather than waiting for the draft lottery. Add to this a belief that the military experience would make a man out of me (as well as pay for college) and the writing was on the wall. I enlisted for the Army’s Early Entry program while still a senior in high school. I could hardly wait! I graduated high school in June and on July 21st, 1969, I entered the Army, delayed one day by the moon landing. I did boot camp in Fort Bragg, North Carolina and eventually got orders for military police training.

I’ll digress for a moment, because there’s a side story to tell here of what happened just prior to my getting orders for MP school. As part of the Army Early Entry program, I was allowed to select the military branch (e.g., Army) and MOS (military occupation specialty) I was going to pursue. For me that was military police. If you got drafted, you had no choices, so this seemed like a better deal. Thus, I signed the papers and entered the military knowing what my training path was going to be. It was guaranteed! I was then sent off to Fort Bragg for boot camp. Boot camp was 8-weeks long, after which we would get our orders for AIT (Advanced Infantry Training), which in my case, meant MP school.

I remember the final day of boot camp when we were all supposed to get our orders for AIT. I was amazed at how many were destined for infantry training. A year later, in Vietnam, I also remember scanning the military paper obituaries and finding so many of the names of men I’d spent boot camp with.  So many died!

You can imagine my distress when all the orders for AIT had been handed out and I didn’t receive any! This was distressful for a number of reasons. You learn a lot of new terminology in the military and one word I had learned during boot camp was “holdover.” This was a dreaded term and associated with nightmares. It refers to someone who has not received any orders, so they  are literally in an in-between state as far as the Army was concerned. You’re not supposed to be in boot camp anymore, nor is there any orders telling you where you should go. Why was it dreaded? Because when a soldier was in this state, he was subject to the whims of the powers that be as to what it is he is going to do while he waits for orders, and in many cases, this meant working in the mess hall as a cook, or other forms of drudgery, until your orders finally make an appearance. If they don’t appear, you end up staying right there at Fort Bragg, doing whatever shit job you’ve been assigned to a.k.a., your new military career!

For me, being a holdover was a trip into the darkest corner of hell. I had no idea why I didn’t get my orders and no one could tell me what was going on. Calls to my recruiter went unanswered. So, while I waited, I ended up doing something called, KP. “KP” stands for Kitchen Police. LOL, a far cry from what I’d signed up for, let me tell you! What it really meant was waking up at 3 am and washing pots, pans, and dishes all day long, for 3 meals, for hundreds of GIs. If that sounds bad to you, triple it, because that’s how bad it was. What was worse, is that there were at least two cooks in the mess hall who had been holdovers! I was beginning to think that this was going to be my lot in life, which was not what I’d signed up for. I kept asking what happened to my orders, but no one could tell me.

One of these holdover cooks, whose name escapes me, although I remember his face clearly. He was certifiably mentally unbalanced. Meeting these types of people was not unusual in the military in 1969. He would get so anxious about his job in the kitchen that he would start shaking uncontrollably and have to take a time-out while he recovered. This is when I really learned for the first time that the Army had its share of assholes because this guy could have won an asshole prize. Imagine cleaning pots and pans in scalding hot water all day, from 3 am to 6 pm, and having someone literally go through the pans you’d just cleaned rubbing them with a white glove and then turning to face you, smiling as he tells you, “Do them all over!” When this happened, you don’t get out till hours later at 8 pm and if you are as unlucky as I was to be a holdover, you got to wake up at 3 am and do it all over the next day!

I ended up doing KP seventeen different times while I was a holdover, from September to just before Christmas. The last time I had KP was extremely memorable. We’d had a tough day washing pots and dishes and the asshole cook was in charge of watching us. He knew I hated his guts and so he had it in for me. When we were done for the day, again he took his white-gloved hand, and this time he wiped beneath the metal tables we were using (which were never cleaned before) and turned to me as he yelled, “Do it over!”

At this point, I was in a state of near-blind rage. I knew I could not do this anymore. I turned and picked up a knife that was lying on the table and held it in my hand, pointing it towards his chest. I told him rather firmly that he had better back off because I wasn’t going to do it! The asshole looked scared to death. He should have been. I wasn’t kidding. At this point, the Mess sergeant (the military eat in buildings called mess halls), who was actually a pretty good guy, came running over yelling, “Hey, hey, Drake! Take it easy! Put the knife down!” By this point, the asshole cook had almost collapsed with fear. I did as the sergeant asked, but as I laid the knife down I told him that I had pulled KP duty 17 times so far and that if I got assigned KP again, I was going to desert the Army. I meant it, and the Mess Sergeant knew it. He told me to knock off for the rest of the evening. I never did KP duty again. And the crazy cook never bothered me again either.

Assholes were a dime a dozen in the Army. Two-and-a-half years later I’d be pointing a 45-caliber gun at a soldier who took joy in waking me up for guard duty at 2 am by making all kinds of noise. He stopped doing that.

A few weeks after the mess hall incident I was finally given my orders for MP school. The sergeant who gave me my orders told me that he had sat on them until I was old enough to enter MP school. I was like, “WTF are you talking about?” “Old enough?” It turned out, no doubt within the small print of my contract with the military, that one had to be 19 years old to enter MP school. But my recruiter set it up so my enlistment started in July which meant that when it was over at the end of August I still wouldn’t turn 19 until February! In other words, I entered the Army a few months too soon for the school I was promised!

I finally figured out that the recruiter who had signed me up for the Army had done so knowing full well I wasn’t old enough to get into school, but he had been assigned a quota to fill and so he signed me up anyway. This type of situation later became news as it was a problem affecting a lot of young recruits like me. Like I said, there were a lot of assholes in the Army. The recruiter then had his friend sit on my orders until I was old enough to get into school.  Of course, no one bothered to tell me this, which led to the holdover angst I was experiencing.

Still incredibly pissed, I went looking for the recruiter when I went home on leave for Christmas. I wasn’t the only one, as I ran into another soldier who was doing the same thing for the same reason! Sadly, and conveniently, the recruiter was on vacation. In the end, I finally got sent off to Fort Gordon, Georgia.

I enjoyed MP school for the most part. I liked the training and the field exercises. I remember a time in MP school when I was ordered as part of a training exercise, to direct traffic to see if I remembered what I had been taught. I was assigned to a very busy highway intersection. Two lanes of traffic going in each direction.  I was standing on top of a wooden stand so cars could see me in my pressed uniform with spit-shined shoes as my white-gloved hands waved the cars through when suddenly a car stopped and the window rolled down. A colonel stuck his head out and yelled to me, “Soldier, I just had to stop and tell you how good you look up there!” LOL! I was so flattered. I chalked it up to the secret I’d discovered for spit-shining leather, which involved candle flame and shoe polish. Like I said, I was into it. I liked MP school.

After MP school I spent 7 months doing riot control in Presidio, California. I was in a STRAC military police battalion. STRAC stood for “strategic,” and we had to be ready within 6 hours to quell riots all over the world. We each had 3 sets of military gear we had to take care of and keep spit-shined. It was a lot of work! MPs have to look immaculate, otherwise we couldn’t give other soldiers a hard time when they looked disheveled or were out of uniform. Yeah, it was hard, but I liked being an MP.

I tried to volunteer for Vietnam when I was in Basic Training, and again in AIT, but they wouldn’t let me. I eventually tried again while at Presidio. I was told that 75% of the battalion had submitted 1049 requests for Vietnam (the name of the form you had to use) and as a result, there was a congressional investigation underway to find out why so many soldiers, stationed at one of the most beautiful military posts in the USA, wanted to leave and go to Vietnam.

Good question. Why would we do this? It might have had something to do with Ladybird Johnson’s Beautify America campaign which meant that every hour we weren’t training for riots we were out picking up paper and other refuse around the fort. Mind-numbing work details! Or perhaps it was due to the locals calling up the post commander on Friday to announce that there was a bunch of students going to over-run the fort in protest about the war. This meant that our weekend passes to go see the beautiful and fun city of San Francisco just outside the fort gate would get canceled!

While at Presidio, in addition to riot control, I also got trained as a school bus driver. Bus driver? Yeah. You have to remember that this was 1970. The Vietnam War was raging. Soldiers, lots of them, were dying every day and had to be buried. For Presidio, this meant soldiers being buried at the San Francisco National Cemetery. Every dead soldier required a military salute complete with several guns shooting off blanks as a salute. My job was to drive the “funeral detail” out to the cemetery and back again. I would then be one of the soldiers to carry the coffin and shoot my rifle in salute.

This reminds me of another side story. Sorry if I seem to be wandering all over. Chalk it up to the weed.

One afternoon I took a funeral detail out and as usual, we did our 7-gun salute and our sergeant folded the US flag and handed it to the dead soldier’s mother. To everyone’s surprise, she immediately started beating the sergeant’s chest, screaming “Why my son?” “Why?” “Why wasn’t it you?” “Why wasn’t it you?” Wow. We were a very somber group when we returned to the fort. I’ll never forget the experience. I think it was made more memorable because I had such a strong desire to go to Vietnam at that point, but was prevented from doing so.

This brings me to the story about how I, out of all the 75% of soldiers who had requests to go to Vietnam, ended up winning the lottery and getting orders to go to Vietnam. I was the envy of the battalion!

Stay tuned for the next part of the story!

Let us know what you think…

Comments

5 Comments

  1. Tom Steinberg

    Got the blog notice in email and promptly read it. I see there’s a typo or something. It’s about dates:

    I arrived in Vietnam on July 21st, 1969, dead set against
    I graduated high school in June and on July 21st, 1970, I entered the Army

    1969, a bad year — when I was at the Science March in DC in 2017 I went to the Viet Nam wall, looking for a couple of names: Jim Spurley (James V. Spurley Jr), who lived a block away in Madison as youngster/teen and Billy Knaus (William Knaus Jr), who had been a twin brother to one of Nancy’s close friends as an adult. Well, I found them alright — same panel, same day (as reported, so, say, week) but, as I learned later very different locations. It was one of this poignant moments. Somewhere I have photos of that panel.

    Reply
  2. Robert Lee

    Thanks for sharing your experience. I would like to share similarities and contrasts to my induction experience. The similarities end with your deployment to Viet Nam.

    Contrast: living in the San Francisco I was exposed to the opposite of pro-war Kool-Aid. Still I joined JROTC with the thoughts of a career in the Army. (Wearing a uniform in a SF high school was not very popular). I was inspired by SGT Saunders in Combat and the movie Patton. Having academic difficulties, I did not see college as an option.

    Also, being close to the famous Haight Street (Hippy) area, my drug experimentation was fully developed before entering the Army. Service in the Army ended my drug use. I picked it up again once I got out, but eventually stopped all but alcohol in the eighties. I next tried legal grass on my sixtieth birthday.

    Similarity: I also joined under the delayed entry program. However, I joined under the “Unit of Choice” program and elected the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment, once commanded by Colonel George Patton.

    Contrast: I failed my pre-enlistment physical, weight and high blood pressure. While the draft was coming to an end, many people would have loved to have been in my position. So my last months of high school involved dieting and jogging. I passed the second physical.

    In June 1971, I entered Nixon’s New, Modern Volunteer Army. I completed basic training at Ford Ord California, an hour from home. The last draftees were among our class. In the “New” Army, I was allowed passes on the weekend and to have my car on base. My brother thought I was AWOL on my first weekend pass, unheard of a year ago. We also were able to keep regulation hair cuts, no buzz cuts.

    Similarity: Joining the 3rd ACR, I expected to be a tanker. My AIT orders arrived sending me to Artillery School at Fort Sill Oklahoma. When I inquired as to why I wasn’t going to Armor School, since I signed up for an Armor unit. I was told my enlistment guaranteed the Unit not the MOS, so I could be assigned any MOS within the Unit, including Infantry or the mess hall. I got a chance to get inside a tank after AIT and I’m glad I was assigned to the Artillery, the “King of Battle”.

    At completion of AIT I was also a “Hold Over”. I don’t recall if there were no orders or the initial orders sent me to the wrong unit. And the contrast, the first sergeant was happy just letting us hang out in the barracks as long as we stayed out of trouble. The barracks were empty because of a gap in classes. Joining the 3rd ACR just outside Seattle, I was at least a grade ahead, E4, of the other new arrivals because of ROTC.

    The big contrast: I was happy staying with my unit right there at Fort Lewis. Obviously, if my unit was deployed to Viet Nam I would have to go, but I had no desire to accelerate that possibility. The unit eventually redeployed to Fort Bliss Texas.

    I served my remaining enlistment of six years In Germany and Fort Carson Colorado. I ended my army career early because of Army bullshit punishing good performance and rewarding poor behaviors, far too often.

    I’m sure this is where our similarities end, as you start writing about your experiences “in country”.

    Reply
    • Jeff Drake

      Thanks for the comparison, Robert! That is interesting!

      Jeff

      Reply
  3. Jim Peterson

    Looking forward to the next installment.

    Reply
    • Jeff Drake

      Jim, thank you so much for reading my blog!

      Reply

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Jeff Drake

Retired IT consultant, world-traveler, hobby photographer, and philosopher.