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Part 2 of n: How I Became the Envy of the Battalion

Written by Jeff Drake
4 · 21 · 24

Part 2 of n: How I Became the Envy of the Battalion

I recommend you read #1 From High School to Vietnam: A Young Soldier’s Story before reading this post.

I last left the story I’m writing with me driving a bus of MPs to and from the San Francisco National Cemetery funerals for soldiers who were killed in Vietnam. Please read the above blog post to get caught up!

How many funerals did we attend performing our 7-gun salute and flag-folding service? Lots. I was making 2 or 3 runs daily to the cemetery. There were other duties that I was also asked to carry out during a normal day, but driving the bus to funeral details was getting busy for me in the spring of 1970. I had to get up early and then sometimes drive back from the century late, near dark. This meant long days. Evenings were often spent guarding various facilities within the fort.

One such long day had me pulling guard duty all night and then being asked to drive a funeral detail to the cemetery the next morning. I didn’t think too much about it, as that wasn’t all that unusual from my experience. What I didn’t realize then is that this wasn’t supposed to happen! There were rules for how long we soldiers could pull duty in a 24-hour period.

It turned out that on this fateful day, I was dog-tired from guard duty and had to drive a big military bus (a large school bus-sized vehicle) on the freeways of San Francisco.  All was good until I got back to Presidio.

I’m not sure if you have ever been to Presidio, but it is a very beautiful place, with large white stucco buildings, and clean streets (from us MPs picking up papers for hours on end). It’s also known for its narrow, windy streets with dips and hills and lots of curves with more beautiful buildings and homes for those military personnel lucky enough to have one.

I had dropped off the funeral detail at the barracks and was on my way to the Motor Pool, where I had to park the bus. On the way I was going around a rather tight curve where some idiot had parked his car in front of his house, no doubt, but right on the curve! I thought I gave myself enough room, but then I wasn’t firing on all cylinders due to lack of sleep! As I made it around the car, the rear bumper of the bus caught the wheel well of that parked car and proceeded to open up the side of the car like a can opener!!

To tell you the truth, the immediate aftermath of this accident is in the memory hole. That is, I don’t remember how the MPs got called, as I don’t believe I had a radio at the time, but somehow two MPs who were currently patrolling the base stopped to look at the carnage. They ran the plates on the damaged car and immediately turned around to me and said, “You need to get back in the bus and get out of here.” I was like, “Say what?” To which they responded, “Do you know whose car this is?” I looked at it. It was an older car, maybe 15-20 years, but in pristine shape, except for the gaping,  jagged, open wound along the side of the car. So, I said, “No.” The soldier looked at me like he was looking at a dead man and said, “That is the battalion commander’s favorite car!” I’m not sure what I may have said in response to this, but probably something along the lines of, “Oh, shit!”, I’m sure.

So, that’s what I did, I drove back to the Motor Pool and parked the bus.

The next day I was called into my commanding officer’s office. I did not know what was going to happen about the accident, but I definitely feared for the worst. When I got there, my First Sergeant was waiting for me, along with an officer I did not recognize. He apparently was a higher-level officer (a major, I think) for our riot control unit. He asked me to describe the accident and so I did. When I was done, the officer looked at me and said, “Did you get a full 8 hours sleep before getting into that bus?”

I thought this was an interesting question, one I hadn’t even considered. My first sergeant (who is the one to assign us to all of our work details) must have also thought it was an interesting question, because he looked like he was going to have a mini-stroke! You see, he could get into a lot of trouble if he had worked me too hard and then put me driving a big bus on a very busy freeway. He obviously knew this and also knew that he had assigned me to drive the bus after working all night on guard duty. He had probably been stewing on it all morning. Once the light went off in my head, I realized that a truthful answer was probably going to get the first sergeant in a lot of trouble. I could feel his eyes drilling holes in me.

I mulled over my response, gulped, and said, “Yes, sir, I did.” I don’t think the major believed me, because he asked me again, “Are you sure you got enough rest before driving?” I could see the first sergeant’s relief wash across his face. Again, I said, “Yes sir, I got enough.” I still don’t think he believed me, but he let it go.

What happened immediately after my meeting with that major and the first sergeant is lost to the fog of history. I don’t remember being threatened with punishment for the accident. I don’t remember the first sergeant saying anything more to me about the incident. I never met the battalion commander, nor ever heard what his reaction was to this mess.  What I do remember is that within the next 5 days, I suddenly received orders to go to Vietnam! And it didn’t take more than a minute to figure out exactly why I got orders to go to Vietnam after being told repeatedly that absolutely no one from Presidio was ever going to get orders for Vietnam (discussed in my first blog post on this topic).

As I mentioned in my first post on this topic, when word got around that I had received orders to Vietnam, I was the envy of the entire battalion! I had soldiers from other units contacting me to find out how I had managed to pull off this amazing feat. I couldn’t prove it, of course, but as soon as I explained the accident and the orders, everyone knew. Tit for tat. This was the revenge of the battalion commander i.e., “You fuck with my favorite car soldier, and I will send you to a place where you could get killed!” I was a bit taken aback, however, because I wanted to go to Vietnam so very much that I looked at this as kind of a reward. LOL! Maybe this was the first sergeant looking out for me by getting my transfer request signed? I didn’t know and I didn’t care, because I was happy about it. I was sad about leaving San Francisco, because I loved that city, but happy to be leaving all the b.s. work details, and of course, the bullshit foisted upon us by Ladybird Johnson (see my first post).

The question I had immediately, was where was I going to be stationed in Vietnam? The answer turned out to be an outfit called the 94th MP Battalion. They were responsible for providing security to military bases within South Vietnam. I didn’t know which base in Vietnam I was to be sent, they would tell me that when I got there.

Before concluding this post, I’ll digress to discuss something you may have wondered. Why did I say what I did? Why didn’t I just tell the major that I had been working previously all night on guard duty? I’m not exactly sure, to be honest. I think I felt bad about the accident and felt bad for the first sergeant, even though technically, he was responsible for my driving when I should not have been driving. So, I chose to fall on my sword. I knew it would be a thankless task, but I did it anyway, believing that it was the right thing to do, even though I might unfairly take the brunt of whatever reaction was coming.

Doing “the right thing” was something I’d had drilled into me by my grandmother and my uncle since I was a small child. And so on this fateful day, that’s just what I did, or at least I thought that’s what I was doing. What I didn’t realize was that the fallout from this decision was going to have such a huge effect on my life. And did it ever!

Interestingly, just over a year and a half later, I would be forced to make another decision involving “doing the right thing.” Again, the decision would have an incredibly powerful effect on my life. This time it would eventually leave me with a disability claim, what the Veteran’s Administration labels, “moral PTSD.” This is a form of post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of a profound loss of trust and moral injury, the kind that a soldier can experience when the command structure that is meant to support him in wartime has broken down, failed, and in many cases, actually worked against him. In my particular case, the failure I was going to experience the next time I “did the right thing,” would result in two months of pure hell and at one point, what I believe to be an attempt on my life ordered by an officer in my chain of command.

Having received my orders for Vietnam, I got to enjoy a 30-day leave that summer of 1970, so I went back home to Duluth to see my friends and family before heading off to Southeast Asia.

Stay tuned for more of the story.

Let us know what you think…

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Jeff Drake

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