Tag Archives: medic

Wearing Whites: My Time in the Military by Roger

12 Aug

Roger lives in the San Diego area, has two children and seven grandchildren, and frequently travels with his family. He spends his summers at a lake in northwestern Montana.

 

In 1966 when I was a junior at college in Billings, Montana, I was drafted because my grades had dropped below the threshold. I believed anyway that serving my country was my duty and that I would be proud to do it. I feared going off to Vietnam but was willing to do so if needed.

I was inducted at Butte, Montana and did my basic training at Ft. Lewis, Washington, where ours was only the second group to go through basic there since World War II. Coal-fired boilers heated the barracks. We had to keep the windows open as a precaution because of the meningitis outbreak at Fort Ord in San Francisco. Doctors thought that open windows would help prevent an outbreak at Ft. Lewis.

After basic, I was sent to Fort McPherson, 3rd Army Headquarters, in Atlanta. I was assigned to the hospital laboratory school for training as a lab technician. Back at Ft. Lewis I had had the requisite testing in basic training and received an extremely high score on the code translation test. I had been exposed to Morse Code in Boy Scouts but never got my merit badge because I hadn’t proved competent in it. So when I took the requisite battery of tests in basic, I just filled in random answers on the multiple choice test. When they called us in to discuss the tests, I was told I got one of the highest scores they’d ever seen in code translation. They  wanted to send me to the communication school in Ft. Huachuca, but I told them I didn’t want to do communication and would prefer to “wear whites,” meaning to be assigned to a medical unit, hopefully in the U.S.

To get to Atlanta we took a Delta jet through Chicago. It was my first travel on a jet plane. We landed at O’Hare Airport in Chicago and I was overwhelmed at the immensity of it. In Atlanta we waited at the airport for someone to pick us up. Announcements were made over poor loud speakers in a southern drawl; we couldn’t understand any of it.

The Ft. McPherson base (Ft. Mac) itself was luxurious compared to Ft. Lewis. There were 600 acres; more than half of the base consisted of a golf course. It was a place where old soldiers were headquartered shortly before they retired. There was a laboratory school. In retrospect I often wondered if there weren’t connections for most of us to get into this particular school because the really big lab school was in Ft. Sam Houston in Texas with several hundred students. We, on the other hand, had only 21 or so students.

Once two friends, Keith and Bob, and I went to meet Keith’s new girlfriend at a Southern Baptist Church. We were told we would arrive after the service, but it turned out that the service hadn’t yet begun so we reluctantly sat through it. We found ourselves sitting in the front row.

At the end of the service the preacher said, “Those of you who have seen the light of Jesus and accepted him as your savior, please rise.” We three just sat there. The pastor repeated this twice, his voice rising in pitch each time. We were embarrassed but didn’t succumb. On the way out of the church, the minister greeted everyone. As he shook my hand, I said, “I think it’s strange that this is Atlanta, Georgia. Why are there no black people in this church?” Whereupon he pulled on my hand, yanking my arm, and guided me firmly out the door without responding to my question.

There was only one black student at the lab school. Joe was a lifeguard from Los Angeles before being drafted. I’d never had occasion to be friends with a black man before, having grown up in Kalispell, Montana. We’d go out to classy places in Atlanta like the Top of the Mart, where we had no problems being served.

I had married my wife on leave at Christmas time, and we rented an apartment. At a party at my place, Joe was standing by the pool when some of my friends shoved him in, all in fun. The day after the pool incident, I was contacted by my C.O. He was from Lubbock, Texas. “Don’t you know where you are?” he asked me.

“I know very well where I am,” I replied, mimicking his tone.

“Well, obviously you don’t. And you’re going to have to learn!” It turned out that a white sergeant in the same apartment complex had complained about Joe. Later after we were intimidated into moving out, we found out that the pool had been closed for three days to be drained and “cleansed.”

A friend of mine had put a deposit on another unit in the same complex. He was asked if he knew me and my wife. “Yes,” he replied, “and I have a lot more friends [implying black friends] than they do.”

“How do you want your deposit back?” the manager asked him.

Our next apartment was in the middle of a black neighborhood. A twenty-foot barbed wire fence “protected” it. However, the managers did tell me there was no problem if I had black visitors. Six months later a law was passed prohibiting landlords from discriminating against military personnel.

I had a best friend from college in Montana—he’d been best man in absentia at my wedding because he was serving in Vietnam at the time. He wanted to go into politics someday. K.C. [not his real name] felt that serving in the military was important to his political aspirations, (although he would have willingly volunteered anyway). In order to be accepted he had to go through Montana Senator Mike Mansfield, then Senate Majority Leader and a former marine, who pulled strings for him because he didn’t meet the height requirement. He went from Camp Pendleton in California to Vietnam, where he was serving his tour.

It was the end of my lab training and we were sitting in Atlanta waiting to be assigned and watching the national news on TV. The news always reported the number of fatalities and told stories about some of the men. Although his name wasn’t mentioned, I got chills down my spine and said, “K.C. Is dead.” He hadn’t been required to do any more patrols because his remaining tour of service was only three days. However, because he wanted to spend the remaining time with his men, he volunteered to go out on a final patrol with them. He took point [led the patrol], stepped on a landmine, and was killed. My wife and I established a scholarship at our alma mater in his honor. I still think about this incident with great sadness.

One week later I got orders to ship out. It was all hush-hush. We had no idea where we were headed. We loaded our supplies at the train tracks. After flying for three days in a C130 transit plane, touching down in Kentucky, San Francisco, Honolulu, Wake Island, Guam, and flying over Vietnam, we landed at Korat Air Force Base in Thailand.

I was stationed in a field hospital. They called it a mobile lab, but it didn’t really move. It was in the middle of nowhere and I hated it. It served as support for the air base for daily bombing raids on Vietnam and was 80 kilometers from Cambodia. There were illegal flights over Cambodia and Laos against the will of those countries’ governments, in order to reach Vietnam.

While there, I learned that doctors are not what you think. I had always considered them intelligent, but there was one in particular that opened my eyes. Ours was considered a “hardship tour of duty,” which meant, among other things, that no relatives or spouses were allowed there. One black sergeant violated the rule and kept his diabetic wife there. At the time of the incident I was on call. A doctor from Beverly Hills—a draftee—was on duty. The sergeant’s wife came into the clinic, needing insulin. Dr. H refused to see her. I pleaded with him to no avail. After talking to her for a while, I went off to sleep. In the morning I went into the lab, which also served as a morgue, and found her lying on a slab. I was sickened and furious. That rich SOB! I will never forget that incident.

Dr. H would order all the lab tests he could think of, regardless of need and even though he knew we couldn’t carry out many of them due to our limited facilities. But he would make it an immediate order [called STAT] and then ignore the results.

In one area of Thailand, soldiers were collecting mosquitoes for a malaria study. A soldier from the study came into the hospital, feeling sick. Malaria showed up in his lab test. Dr. H didn’t know what to do, and the kid died. The pathologist, a captain and our boss, had the authority to bring charges. But Dr. H had more time in and therefore outranked our boss. Also, our boss had acquired his medical degree through the army; i.e., he wasn’t wealthy. Therefore he feared retaliation and backed down. Charges were never brought.

I didn’t experience much danger in Thailand. Once when I was at the enlisted men’s club, the “Thai Cong” blew up our ammo depot, which scared the hell out of us. The whole building shook.

Once three MIGs were intercepted as they headed towards the base. A red alert was declared; the base was blacked out, except for the lighted red cross on the hospital roof. Our C.O. insisted that that light be turned off also. It took a long time to figure out how to do this. Meanwhile, we sat in the dark in the hospital over a flask of scotch.

Another incident was at the grand opening of Veena’s Restaurant. Veena was the wife of the former hospital C.O., who died leaving her his military insurance, enabling her to start the restaurant on Freedom Highway, a road built by the U.S. headed towards Cambodia. Veena was especially fond of us hospital personnel and treated us like royalty, so 90% of the hospital personnel along with most of the base command were present at the opening of her restaurant. I was approached by a friend from CID [military intelligence] and ordered to inform the general that we needed to evacuate immediately because the CID had found three mortars in the surrounding area directly aimed at the restaurant and it was unknown if there were more.

As to casualties, in order to cope with them, I had to gradually learn to distance myself from the horror that was the reality of my job. I remember one pilot that crashed at the end of the runway and nothing was left of him but a mass of charcoal; nothing human-looking remained of his body at all.

When I arrived in Oakland in 1968 at the end of my tour of duty, we were required to wear our uniforms to fly home on stand-by. Our commander had warned us to ignore any demonstrators. It was a rainy day. As we were driven by bus to a plane bound for San Diego, we saw demonstrators with their anti-war signs. It was painful, the lack of understanding for the effort I had just made in serving my country.

Last year, along with another Vietnam-era vet and a World War II vet, I had occasion to visit the World War II museum in New Orleans. It was a moving experience. It had taken 46 years for me to hear the two words, “Welcome home.”

 

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Hippy Soldier, by Jim Diggle

8 Jan

Jim Diggle

Jim Diggle has a carpet and upholstery cleaning business in Los Angeles, which he’s been operating since 1983. Today he’s a Buddhist, “taking refuge in the triple gem Buddha-Dhamma Sangha.” He practices yoga and meditates daily. Jim helped raise the two teenage children of his Peruvian wife.

 

 

 

 

In the early 1960s, I was 13 and lived in Santa Monica. I was from “Leave It to Beaver”—you do as you are expected. My dad was an aircraft mechanic but had trouble keeping a job. My mom was Peruvian and no longer worked after she came to the U.S. I found my parents conservative, uncommunicative, repressed, and cold. My friends, however, were lucky to have hands-on, friendly parents. I’d visit them, and then I’d go home and feel withdrawn. I believe it was this experience that affected my ability to be intimate in relationships. My family was Catholic—I was a “good little boy.” Because of the Church’s influence, I was afraid to act myself. I look back at those years as if I was going through the Inquisition. When I did anything free of restraint, I regretted it. I believed in Mortal Sins—if I was “bad,” I’d go to hell. My peers may have rebelled but I never did.

In 1964 I graduated from high school and attended Santa Monica City College. Through the media’s reporting on critical war news and the counter-culture movement, I became anti-religious, anti-church, anti-establishment, and anti-war. College was not for me; I hated it and did poorly. I had few friends. The only reason I attended college was to get out of my house. I studied subjects like liberal arts, art, history, and geography but avoided science and math, although they were required subjects.

Jim Portrait as Young Man
When I realized I wasn’t going to make it at college, I decided that the only way to get away from my family was to join the army. So I enrolled in only a few units at college, became classified 1A, and got drafted. (That was ironic because I considered myself anti-war.)

In the army most of the other draftees were also against the war. In Basic Training in October of 1966 at Fort Ord in Monterrey, California, everyone was from the L.A. area. There were 17 to 20 of us. I was thrown together with people from various socio-economic levels, a new experience for me. Mainly white, some blacks and Mexicans. Many were hippies, with long hair—street guys, rebellious, with disciplinary problems, gang-like—especially the whites and Mexicans. (The black draftees were calmer and more well-behaved.)

In the army the coolest guy was a super hippy. He was a well-balanced, mild person. He shared his record albums of the Mothers of Invention and Frank Zappa. He adapted to the army and became a battalion leader, but most of the other white guys goofed off. As for me, I was still scared of everything.

During medic training at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, I was sure I’d be sent to Vietnam. Instead I was sent to Germany. Other guys had to learn to use M-16s. Wow! I get to go to Europe.

army truck.2          army truck.1

I was 13 months in Germany, stationed in Augsburg. There I was again thrown in with everyone—blacks, hillbillies (the most aggressive). Most sergeants were southerners or blacks. They were lifers—just doing their jobs no matter what. But I met some anti-war guys who turned me on to Bob Dylan, to folk music, to books on the counter culture,  to literature by Samuel Beckett and James Joyce. Drugs were cool. That’s where I became a hippy. Draftees had to stay out of trouble; even though I was anti-war, I had to survive. But at least the army couldn’t tell us how to think.

army locker

The inside of my locker at Augsburg

platoonInAugsburg

My platoon

red cross tank winter Augsburg

I emerged from the army even more anti-everything. I lived for a while with my family in Santa Monica and got a job at St. John’s hospital as an orderly. But I didn’t take the job seriously. After my father died in 1969, Mom sold the house and left for Peru with my 16-year-old sister, who was quite a handful—smoking dope, dropping acid, and running away from time to time with her friends.

Jim's mother, sister (R) and friend

My mother and sister (R) and friend

I quit my job and decided to live as a hippy; it was similar to being homeless. With my family, I had only sporadic communication, which was easy because I felt no strong bonds to them.

I met Cecelia Holland, a hippy and successful author of historical fiction in her early 20s, and my friend Jack and I went to live in her house in Pasadena. I paid her $30 a month. I was cashing in my U.S. bonds by then. (The army had taken $18 a month out of our pay.)

I still had a severe fear of intimacy—no girls, no sex. I thought I’d be that way forever. I used drugs and had no thoughts about tomorrow. Finally I hit rock bottom. I had no money left, only $18 checks coming in from my savings bonds. I cashed in the bonds.

My older half-sister and her husband found out about my situation. Although they were conservative, they took pity on me. They would pay my way to Peru, they said. I contacted my mother who said yes, come down. I cut my hair and headed to Peru. That was in 1970.

I wondered what I’d do to get high there. People were copying American culture, the good, bad and ugly. I ran into an old friend, started doing marijuana and cocaine, and fell into the same situation as in the States. After I’d been in Peru ten months,  I told Mom I was going back to the U.S.

But the old crowd in the U.S. had changed. The hippy thing had mainly disappeared. Everything was changing. Kids weren’t living on the streets any more north hitchhiking. They were getting jobs, living in apartments, getting to be more responsible—things cost money. I hooked up with the brother of one of the Peruvian guys who had come to the U.S. We shared an apartment and I got a job right away. I had to. No more free life—nothing is free.

My friend was full of energy and didn’t do many drugs. Then I took up with a Latino crowd. I spoke Spanish. Also, I started relating to girls for the first time. I tried college again but was no more mature than before.

Since I had no ambition, any job was OK. I took on menial jobs at markets and factories. It was easier to survive on very little back then. An older friend of a Peruvian buddy of mine was a carpet and upholstery cleaner, who needed part-time weekend help. I worked a while for him.

By that time I had a regular job in shipping at Telecolor (a company that went house to house taking pictures). I met a Bolivian, Eduardo Villanueva, a geologist who traveled around the world looking for oil on the ocean bottom. So I went to Utah to work with him in the Great Salt Lake. Barges patrolled the lake, exploring the sub-surface. They used air cannons, aimed at the bottom, creating a wave that traveled 10,000 feet below the surface, and then they recorded it on a Richter scale as it created an earthquake under the water. If it was flat, that meant no oil. If there were cracks and fissures, there was oil and a drill would be sunk.

Barge Salt Lake.1           Barge Salt Lake.2           Barge Salt Lake.3

We covered the whole Salt Lake. In 1974 the workers on the barge led a nomadic life, travelling the world. They were alcoholics, southerners; many came from broken families. Digicon, Inc. from Texas was the parent company; we had a joke: “Who didja con to get to work for you?” The working conditions were tough. We spent many hours on and then many hours off. We almost sank but the water was only four feet deep. On the plus side, the job paid well and provided room and board, so you could save money.

After Salt Lake I went up to Alaska with this same job, to Prudhoe Bay on the north slope. This was from 1974 to 1975. A pipeline was being laid from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez on the southern Pacific coast. We were in the Arctic, on the Beaufort Sea. There were three months of total darkness and three of total light. Polar bears, 60 degrees below zero, crazy workers. One Christmas night there was a gun fight between two drunken brothers. (Guns were legal there, for “self-protection.”) In the Arctic, we almost sank, but we were rescued and towed into the port at Prudhoe Bay.

Barge.Alaska.3      Barge.Alaska.1      Barge.Alaska.2

I didn’t like my boss, an alcoholic. He’d fly off the handle when he wasn’t drinking. One day we were in dry-dock and he fired me. I left for Anchorage and then for Los Angeles.

In Los Angeles I hooked up with the same carpet cleaner I’d worked for earlier. He let me work part-time for him again. I also took a second job full-time job as an interior designer’s helper in 1976.

my boss

The interior designer I worked for

(By 1983 I’d formed Diggle Enterprises, a carpet and upholstery cleaning business. When my boss retired in 1992, I took over his carpet cleaning business as well.)

In the early 1970s I finally started to overcome some of my intimacy issues and was having relationships but with only superficial commitments.

Girls

I told myself I needed to do something about my life. I wasn’t in a good place; I wanted to settle down, have a family. On a trip to Peru in the 1980s I met my future wife Pilar. After beginning a superficial relationship with her, I gradually began to change because of her intelligence and wisdom. She taught me how to be a genuine human being.

Peru with skull

Me in Peru

Looking back, I have no regrets because if that’s what I had to go through to get where I am right now, then so be it. Now I am a different person, a happy person. My experiences counted for something and I wound up in a much better place.