This was originally published April 5th, 2017 in the Belle Banner, Belle Missouri.
I enlisted in the Army August 30th, 1961, fifteen years after my Dad was discharged, from the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. I went through basic training at Fort Knox, Kentucky, advanced infantry training at Fort Gordon, Georgia, and Airborne School at Fort Benning, Georgia. The day we made our last jump in airborne school, the Sergeants told us; “You are now paratroopers, you can whip any five Marines”. Some went to the bars downtown that night and tried it. They were carried back to the barracks, and didn’t look so good for graduation the next morning. I was then assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. It was after sundown when we arrived, by bus, at the 82nd Replacement Detachment. A very tough sounding Sergeant briefed us on where things were located. The enlisted club was at the end of the street. The Sergeant told us that paratroopers didn’t drink that slop beer, paratroopers drank whiskey. At that time, if you were in the Army you could drink alcohol on post, regardless of age. Three years later I made Sergeant. The tradition then was to “wet down the stripes” of a new Sergeant, because he could now go to the NCO (Non-commissioned Officer) Club. The NCO club held “Happy Hour” every day the first hour after work, during which drinks were half price. Young officers held a ceremony called a “Prop Blast” to welcome new lieutenants. Prop blast is what paratroopers feel when they exit a propeller driven airplane, except in that case it culminated with the new lieutenant having to drink an unknown alcoholic concoction from a silver chalice.
Vietnam was terrible for the Army. I have not read Lieutenant General H. R. McMasters’ book “Dereliction of Duty”, but I have read much of the research material he used. After the Battle of Ia Drang Valley in November 1965 (realistically portrayed in the movie “We Were Soldiers”) Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara visited Vietnam specifically to find out what happened at Ia Drang. After that visit, he could not foresee a way the US could win in Vietnam, he recommended leaving Vietnam then. In December 1965, President Johnson met with McNamara and others and decided to send more troops to General Westmoreland in Vietnam. President Lyndon Johnson had no real military experience. He was a Texas congressman when World War II started, he was placed on active duty as a Navy Lieutenant Commander and “observed” a couple operations, and was then recalled to the US Congress. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was teaching accounting at Harvard, and went on active duty in 1943, as a Captain in the US Army Air Corps, and spent the war in the Office of Statistical Control, doing analysis of bomber runs. After the war he helped rebuild Ford Motor Company and become known as one of Ford’s “Whiz Kids”. President Kennedy selected McNamara as Secretary of Defense because he wanted a smart man in that job. Kennedy was a war hero himself and understood war. In 1964, William C. Westmoreland was the Commander of 18th Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He was considered one of the top generals in the Army. He was a fine, smart man. I saw him greet sergeants he had met one time 10 years prior, call them by name and talk about what they were doing back then. He was promoted to 4 stars and given command of the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV). In retrospect I think that is where he reached his peter principle. In case you’re not familiar, in 1969 Dr. Lawrence J. Peter wrote a book called “The Peter Principle”. His thesis was, that in a large organization a person can do a good job and keep getting promoted up the line until he is promoted into a job he can’t handle. The military situation in Vietnam started improving when Westmoreland was replaced in 1968, but by then it was too late, the country had already turned against the war. The My Lai Massacre was on March 16th 1968, during which, between 350 and 500 Vietnamese civilians, including old women and children, were lined up and murdered by a US Army infantry platoon. The Platoon Leader, Lieutenant William Calley, was convicted of murdering 22 unarmed civilians, but only spent three months in military prison. It was national news for weeks, and many felt the lieutenant was simply a scapegoat. But, when all the facts were known, it was cold blooded murder of hundreds. The cause was a terrible leadership climate. In following months and years, charges were filed against the entire chain of command, including the Division Commander, a Major General.
In World War II units were shipped overseas and stayed, as did all the soldiers who went with them, for the duration of the war. In Vietnam it was decided that soldiers would only spend one year there, then return to the US, so units were constantly having experienced people leave and inexperienced people arrive. Company and battalion commanders spent six months to the hour in command, then moved, so more officers could get their “command time”, in a combat area. The enemy used drugs as a weapon. Heroin and pot were cheap and plentiful. A vile of 90% heroin was $2.00, I found them lying around bunkers. In some units, it didn’t have to be dark for the pot smell to fill the air in the evening. Back at Fort Bragg, a list of suspected drug users was sent weekly up the chain to Division Headquarters.
It was around that time that the leadership of the Army started attempting to change the ethical and moral culture of the Army. For about 30 years every Chief of Staff of the Army gave guidance to those writing manuals and lesson plans on the subjects of professional ethics and leadership. Army leadership developed and debated values that should be taught and finally established seven core values. Loyalty – Bear true faith and allegiance to the U.S. Constitution, the Army, your unit and other Soldiers. Duty – Fulfill your obligations. Accomplish tasks as a member of a team. Respect – Treat people with dignity and respect. Selfless Service – Put the welfare of the nation, the Army and your subordinates before your own. Honor – Live up to Army values. Integrity – Do what’s right, legally and morally. Personal Courage – Face fear, danger or adversity (physical or moral). They are arranged to form the acronym LDRSHIP. By the 1990’s complete core and advanced courses in ethics were taught at West Point, the US Army War College, the Command and General Staff College and the 18 other Army service schools, and the ROTC Cadet Command. In 1998 the Army started teaching the seven core values in basic training. Army values have become more than just classes, they are pushed and emphasized as who soldiers are, and how they live.
Spiritual fitness has long been recognized by Army leadership, as a necessary component of a soldiers’ character. General George Patton recognized the power of spiritual strength when he circulated 250,000 copies of a weather prayer, one for every soldier in the Third Army, during the Battle of the Bulge. In Operation Desert Storm, in 1990, more than 15,000 soldiers of the 18th Airborne Corps attended worship one Sunday morning before the ground war began. Unit ministry teams, consisting of a Chaplain and a Chaplains’ Assistant are in every unit down to battalion level.
In 1970 there were three main NCO Clubs, two officer clubs and 11 annexes on Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Now there is one “Club” open to the public and all ranks, and there are only three locations, on post, that serve alcohol to be consumed on the premises. There are now 11 chapels on Fort Bragg, including a large new “All American Memorial Chapel” in the 82nd Airborne Division area. That makes two in the division area.
The Army has matured from a culture of hard drinking, hard fighting, rough and tumble soldiers to one of dedicated and educated professionals willingly serving their country. Most are married, and the families are included, as part of the “Army Family”. Every company now has a “Family Readiness Group” composed of the spouses of the soldiers. They are funded and supported by the Army, they have monthly meetings and they are kept informed about what their soldier is doing on deployments, and what is in the future. They are great help to each other. There are now hundreds of dual military married couples. The Army has a formal “Married Army Couple Program”. The couple has to register in the program, then every effort is made to assign the couple to the same post or overseas location. Many couples have children and raise families while both are on active duty. It is rare that a married couple is separated. Basic training is tougher and more professional now than when I entered the Army, and it is tougher and more professional than it was when I was a Drill Sergeant 36 years ago. All training is professional and realistic.
In February 2012, the 4th Brigade Combat Team of the 82nd Airborne Division deployed to Kandahar Province, which includes the Arghandab River in Afghanistan. It was a large Taliban stronghold. From March to the end of July that brigade saw some of the most intense combat since the initial deployments in 2001. Performing with, what some have called, an almost perfect strategic plan they drove the Taliban out of the area. There were some casualties. Lieutenant Colonel (Chaplain) Jeffrey Watters was the Division Chaplain for the 82nd Airborne Division. He wrote the following article for the summer 2012 edition of the Paraglide Magazine;
“Much has been written about today’s youth – the generation which has grown up with computers, video games, and social media. What brought them into the Army differs widely from person to person. Some joined for college tuition, some for belief in something greater than themselves, some because of a military heritage, but they all have one thing in common. When they joined, they did so during a time of military conflict, knowing that they would deploy overseas and participate in the War on Terror. Coming from the generation often characterized by their elders as being weak, undisciplined couch potatoes, those who joined belied that claim and were transformed from civilians to soldiers, a claim only one percent of the American population can make. The remaining 99% go about their daily life giving little or no thought about what is occurring in the Arghandab River Valley of southern Afghanistan. But those one percent, they are the true American treasures. No matter where I travel in Afghanistan, what I see are exceptional Soldiers. They come from all walks of life and from every corner of America. They have been forged into a team, vetted in the crucible of suffering and sacrifice that only Soldiers can understand. In some sense, they have become what others of their generation can only view in a movie or play in a video game. They have become warriors, transitioned from isolated individuals to members of a close knit band with a mission greater than themselves. They keep faith with their fellow Soldiers who are on their left and right. They are unsurpassed in every way.
The United States of America is the greatest force for freedom and security that the world has ever known, and in no small measure, that’s because of the American Soldiers’ commitment to make sure the mission succeeds, no matter the cost. I see it in their sun-baked faces, in their somewhat tattered bleached uniforms, but more importantly, I see it in their eyes. It takes fortitude, courage, and a solemn resolve to continue the mission, knowing that they may meet their untimely fate. Yet they push on. Because of honor, because of courage, because of the sacred trust that they hold with one another – not to let a buddy down.
As I participate in a Memorial Service, a Dignified Transfer or a Purple Heart Ceremony, I see extraordinary sacrifice. For every fallen and wounded warrior, we grieve. The sorrow is profound, the pain intense, yet our Soldiers continue on. The memory of those sacrifices goes with us, a constant reminder to honor their lives by committing to lead from the front, to share successes and setbacks, to share danger, to share sorrow and joy … tragedy and triumph. Yes, I see it daily – young Troopers displaying courage, fortitude, bravery, heroism, sacrifice. This is our 82nd heritage, handed down to us from the generations before. A heritage, upheld with respect and pride.”
This was originally published April 5th, 2017 in the Belle Banner, Belle Missouri.