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Places I Didnít Go..
I joined the Marine Corps in July of 1968 shortly after the famous Tet Offensive of that year. At the time I didnít really know very much about our military. I didnít know things like the Marine Corps had its own aviation element.
On graduation from recruit training (boot camp) our drill instructors read off all of our names and where we were going to be assigned. About 95% of the people in the platoon were assigned the MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) of 0300, Basic Infantryman. There were a few others in related combat arms. I think that there were three of us that were assigned the MOS of 2800 which none of us had heard of.
So we asked one of the drill instructors what we were going to be and where we were going to go. He said that 2800 was a type of basic aviation electronics MOS and that we could see our new home for the next year a little farther up the parade ground towards the base headquarters building. I donít know about the other two (?) but I was not happy about this at all. I had been told at the interview after we took our intelligence and aptitude tests that I had an aptitude for electronics, but I had also told the interviewer that I wanted to be a tank crewman. I guess that the demand for tank crewmen was low then.
So after several months at Camp Pendleton, either on guard duty, or in the Ďthreeí week infantry training course, and a week or so of leave, I was back at MCRD San Diego, California to start a year of fairly intensive electronics training. There were three phases to the course: Basic Electronics School, where I did very well; Radio Fundamentals Course, where I did fairly well; and Aviation Radio Repair Course, where I didnít do very well. (This was during the time when the Marine Corps Comm.-Elect Schools were all in San Diego except for the radar repair course, which was already at MCB 29 Palms, California.
During that year about a third of the people that I had gone through recruit training with came back from Vietnam in one way or another. I went to Balboa Naval Hospital a few times to see some of the ones that had survived but I ended up feeling so guilty that I stopped going.
Somewhere during this time I was assigned to the firing party for burial details. Probably in between courses. That was a sobering experience. We sometimes did four ceremonies a day. It wasnít hard work for the firing party. We had to keep our uniforms looking good, march smartly for short distances, and fire as one. It was impossible to avoid noticing the way these ceremonies affected the families, though, and I ended up carrying around a lot more guilt. I will never forget a young wife at one ceremony who, when presented with the flag, said to the officer in charge of the detail, ďMy husband is dead. Why arenít you?Ē
Three close friends of mine had joined the Marine Corps a few weeks before I did, and I actually saw them once during recruit training. One of them was accepted into Recon after infantry training and went through quiet a bit of additional training before being sent to Vietnam. He was killed on his third day in the field, through no fault of his own. One of the others was addicted to heroin when he came back, and the last I heard is still fighting that problem. The third was just never the same when he got back. He couldnít hold a job and lived on welfare and disability pay. Another close friend was kind of drafted into the Army and apparently spent too much time in areas where defoliants had been used. His skin looked normal but if you rubbed it too hard it just came off. I havenít seen any of these people since the early 80ís and hope that they are all doing well, but somehow I doubt it.
During the slightly less than two years I had left in the Marines after training, I was stationed at MCAS (Marine Corps Air Station) Beaufort, South Carolina. I applied for transfer to Vietnam on a fairly regular basis but it never came through. This wasnít a particularly heroic thing to do because, if I had been sent, there was a 90% chance that I would be assigned to the facility at Monkey Mountain where the only real danger, usually, was that the monkeys the mountain was named after were very good at throwing rocks and didnít like Marines very much.
I joined the Army in 1974 after my first marriage fell apart. (I had been thinking about the French Foreign Legion but there had been a few articles in Soldier of Fortune magazine by an ex-Army airborne type that had joined the FFL and there were some things about it that didnít suit me.) In November of 1974 we had stopped sending troops to Vietnam, although I didnít find that out right away. Iím not sure when the whole mess was finally over, but I think I missed getting a star on my National Defense Service Medal by a few weeks. (I finally got it after the Gulf War.) I donít remember whether there were any opportunities for combat during the 4 Ĺ years I was in the Army. (That extra half-year was because I had extended my enlistment in order to be eligible for a school that I didnít complete.)
In April of 1983 I joined the Marine Corps again. I had graduated from college nearly a year earlier with a degree in engineering but couldnít find a job. During the next nine years I believe that we went through the situations in Beirut, Grenada, Panama, and for sure, the Gulf War. I almost got to go to Beirut after the embassy was blown up, as a replacement for the TOW platoon that was wiped out when the building collapsed, but it didnít turn out. There were several people in my platoon who had spent time in Beirut, and at least one who said he had and was found out to be lying about it. All of the people that had been there were real characters. I donít know if it was because of their experiences there or if they were that way before they went. One was actually sent back to the ship because he was caught collecting unexploded cluster bombs and keeping them under his cot.
I had the wrong MOS during Panama and Grenada, I think, and I also think that the Marine presence was a lot smaller than the Armyís.
The Gulf War was different. I did something stupid a few days before the first deployments for Desert Shield and was non-deployable. That was a real low point in my life even though the people who did go, from my unit, basically agreed that the whole thing sucked.
I was the junior Staff Sergeant in the Aviation Radio Repair section for the Second Marine Air Wingís Tactical Air Command and Control Center. Someone decided that there was a need for at least a partial TACC Center in Saudi Arabia, possibly as an augmentation to the 3rd Marine Air Wingís TACC Center. (There were only four TACC centers, one for each MAW (Marine Air Wing, something like a division. 1st MAW was stationed at MCAS Futenma, Okinawa, and I had been there. 2nd MAW was at MCAS Cherry Point, North Carolina and I was on my second tour there. 3rd MAW was stationed in California somewhere. 4th MAW was a reserve unit and the TACC Center was near the Great Lakes Navy Base in Illinois.)
Anyway, all of the Air Radio Repair people in the unit (except me) and a selected few from TACC and TDCC packed up and headed out. This included the TACC chief, the TDCC chief and the maintenance chief. Suddenly I was elevated from the junior air radio technician to maintenance chief, a position normally filled by someone three ranks higher than I was. I had only recently returned from a year of training as a technician and, as kind of a spare wheel, I hadnít been involved with the equipment that we had very much. At that time the Air radio section was responsible for three vans full of equipment. Two of the vans were filled with UHF, VHF and HF radios. The third was a big fold out type that could hold maybe 20 aircraft controllers. The group that went to the Gulf took one of the radio vans and the control van.
A lot of things happened during the Gulf War and I had some real challenges. I was lucky enough to have a Woman Marine Staff Sergeant from TDCC as my second in command. She kept me from having to worry about some really messy situations that came up during the period. Before our people even left I got involved in getting an E-7 Navy Corpsman re-enlisted so that he could go with our unit. He hadnít been planning to stay in and when the opportunity to get out of the US for a while came up, he needed to really scramble to get ready.
The first thing that happened involved cryptographic material, the radio frequency and code sheets and keys. The people in transport to the Gulf noticed that they didnít have all of the stuff they thought they should have. I had recently completed the crypto custodianís course so I became involved in this. We had to do a complete inventory of all the crypto materials in our unit safes as well as everything in the crypto vault. We wound up doing this about four times before everything was accounted for. It was a real pain.
After this Squadron headquarters became concerned that the people who had gone had taken a little more equipment than they were supposed to. So we had to do a complete inventory of what was left behind. When I looked into the radio van that was left behind I found that it had been stripped. There was nothing useful left in it. A few days later I got a phone call from the 4th MAW TACC asking how long it would be before we could return a 60kW generator that they had loaned to us. I looked out the window to the place where the generators are usually parked, and it was the same as every other day since the unit had moved out. There were no generators there. I told them that I had a suspicion that their generator was doing its patriotic duty. These two incidents, which were fairly common among all of the units involved, became a big deal later.
We had some personnel problems during this time. One of the TDCC technicianís was having trouble with his wife who he thought was doing all kinds of horrible things while he was gone. I sent my staff sergeant hatchet-person to see her several times and was glad that I didnít have to go because there were a lot of incidents during this period of either unit representatives taking advantage of dependents, or the other way around. I think that both of us felt better because she was the unit representative, which left small latitude for any misunderstandings. Anyway, one day when my staff sergeant went over to that wifeís house, the wife had taken the baby and left. The doors were unlocked and most of the furniture and all of his stuff was still there but the wife was gone. He was not happy to hear about this. We were not happy to tell him. It seems inconceivable that people act this way but I guess it has been going on forever.
I also received a new radio repairman. He was very much a mixed blessing. After several months of poor performance he managed to get arrested and released, three times in one night, in three different counties, for driving while intoxicated. I have no idea how he was released even once, but Iíve never heard of anything like this before. Since I was his superior I had to go to all of his court appearances, in uniform. It was almost funny some times. There were occasions where I would have to go to court just to tell the judge that my man couldnít be there because he was in jail somewhere else. I went to pick him up on a release date once and found out that he had been let out a week before for good behavior. For some reason higher powers were still allowing him to live off post so I drove out to his trailer and picked him up to take him to another detention center. He said that he just hadnít felt like going to work and was beginning to enjoy jail because he always ended up as a trustee and never had any doubts about what his schedule was going to be for the day. Ironically, he got the same judge on two consecutive occasions. The first time the judge fined him and suspended his license. The second time he sentenced him to 30 days in jail. I think I made about 10 court appearances. In the end, the day that he was supposed to be discharged from the Marines as unsuitable, he decided not to come to work. I had to drive out to his trailer and get him again. The squadron commander was not amused.
When we started gearing up for Desert Storm a number of interesting things happened. We were tasked with providing a section of one of our inflatable shelters that was to be kept at a temperature of a close to 130 degrees F, about 54 degrees C, as possible. A group of volunteers were supposed to spend most of the day inside there in full NBC (Nuclear, Biological and Chemical) protective gear. This was an attempt to see if some new equipment would be better suited to the climate in the Gulf in the case that Iraq decided to use some of their nasty stuff on our troops. Those people probably never volunteered for anything ever again. When they came out for infrequent breaks they were soaked and panting. I understand that the Germans did something a little like this to acclimatize the troops they were going to send to North Africa during WWII. I hope they did it better than we did.
Another interesting thing was that the Marine Corps started forming replacement units. There was a rumor going around at the time that we were expecting between 40,000 and 60,000 casualties on the first day of operations and the Marines wanted to make sure that they had groups of people of all the right MOSes, pre-processed for overseas deployment, where they could get their hands on them in a hurry. This seems typical of the American theory that expediency is better than unit cohesion.
As part of this Ďreplacementí effort, 2nd MAW TACC Center was asked how difficult it would be to put together another package like the part of the unit that was already deployed to the Gulf. I was finally forced to go to Squadron and tell them that we couldnít do it without all new equipment and about a year to train. You have to understand that all of our experienced and most of our inexperienced people were gone. All of our transportation and generators were gone. All of our radios except for the ones in the TDCC van were gone. Even if all of that stuff was magically replaced it takes a lot of time to train people for a TACC Center because there is lot of sophisticated equipment mixed in with some essential equipment that was made in the 1950s. Much of what we did was not related to what we were taught in school. If the new people that we would get had to be recruited and then sent to school, it would be at least 14 months before we got any of them and then they would only be very marginally useful. This did not go over well at all and I was forced to go back through the equipment inventory process again. When the people at squadron finally realized the size of the mess that the deployed people had left behind a number of careers were affected.
Iím not sure what I would have done if I had been one of the ones going but I donít think I would have done what they did even if only because it never would have occurred to me. If you look at it from their standpoint, they didnít know what they were facing. Having spare radios might have been a matter of life or death. The same with that generator from 4th MAW.
I suppose we could go all the way back to defense spending cuts and say that we were never provided with the equipment necessary to do our jobs. Another part of this was that the second van was not taken, complete, because it was not considered likely that our radios would ever be needed for anything important, which turned out to be the case. Since our stuff was of unknown usefulness, why take up deck space on a ship with an extra van? As I was told it turned out, the Air Force ran the air show almost exclusively because they had the best equipment for the job. I think that they loaned the Marines equipment for compatibility reasons. Normally, Marine aviation assets are expected to be used in areas where they only need to have partial compatibility with Navy units and I donít think anyone ever considered a situation where we would all be under the Air Forceís umbrella.
Anyway, I didnít go to the Gulf War, either, and I got out before the Soviet Union crumbled so I didnít get involved in any of that mess. What a waste of 16 years? Not really. I obviously learned and experienced a lot of things that I will never completely forget, although the details have gotten a little fuzzy.
My thanks yet again to Rory.
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