Sunday, May 22, 2011

Sundays with Steve - The US Army and Me

These Sunday's segments are written by my husband, Mr. Jenny. Here's what he has to say about his posts:

I’ve been writing these weekly stories about life in Northern Idaho, as a youngster and as growing into a young man, primarily for our family. And I'm delighted to share them with you. Just between us, I’m anticipating being cranky when some whipper-snapper who may not even be born yet harasses me in 30 years or so with 'Grandpa, tell me about when you were a boy.' That will probably be after the mad cow disease has set in and erased whatever memory is left. So these are the not-so-dramatic adventures of a Baby Boomer in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

The U.S. Army and Me

“Son,” said the Colonel, “You have a choice to make, but first let’s talk about your next assignment. I have your orders here for you to report to a communications battalion about 30 miles north of Saigon in two weeks. But don’t worry too much, the battalion has lots of protection around it, and the nightly shelling rarely kills anyone. And your assignment is only for twelve months.”

Some choice that was. It was late 1972. I had graduated from college the year before, and I had just spent twelve months in advanced officer training mostly at the U.S. Army’s Southeast Signal School in Augusta, Georgia, learning all the ins and outs of operating tropospheric scatter radios, a soon to be obsolete form of long range communications -- the pre-satellite paths for the Pentagon to communicate with its troops in Southeast Asia and around the world.

“The good news,” said the Colonel, “is that Mister Nixon doesn’t need all of you Second Lieutenants in Vietnam anymore.”

He was right, within about two years the U.S. had ingloriously left Vietnam, sparing thousands of young men like me the horrors of an Asian war.

“Or,” said the Colonel, “I have another set of orders here directing you to report for duty with the National Guard in your home state, where you will have to join for six years.”

Let me think about that for about one-tenth of a second: One year in the jungle getting shelled, mortared, and shot at every night. Or six years in the National Guard, whatever that was, playing Army one weekend a month.

“Yes sir,” I said as I smartly saluted and picked up the papers for option number two. “Thank you Colonel, it has been a pleasure getting to know you.” With that, I left Georgia, rarely to return in future years.

Six weeks later I had returned to my home town in North Idaho, where I and my brothers grew up, and where I had secured a job at the local wood and paper manufacturing company writing the corporation’s monthly employee newspaper and traveling the state, taking photographs, for the company’s achieves. It was dream job for a kid just out of college and the Army. I knew that I would join the family business at some point in my career, but I was determined to put that off for as long as I could.

“Come with me, Son,” said the National Guard Colonel. What is with these colonels all calling me son? Did I look like I was six years old so something?

I had reported in at the local National Guard armory with my orders, assigning me for duty there for the next six years.

I had just spent a year becoming a highly-trained tropospheric scatter station commander, although could not for the life of me figure out why a small Guard battalion in North Idaho required the advance capabilities of such long range communications. Mine, I told myself, is not to ask why, but to follow the Army’s orders to keep my butt out of Vietnam.

The Colonel, who I came to know well and like over the next several years, had been expecting me. My file was on his desk, with some writing that I could see in the margins of the typewritten Army forms. I didn’t quite know what to think about this. I was 23 years old, in my first job, and now, in my first Army job. I was nervous, and not very confident.

“Come with me, Son,” said the Colonel, leading me out the front door of the Armory, around the corner, and through the gates the blocked a large vehicle yard in the back. “There you go, Lt. Matlock, your first command,” said the Colonel, looking off to the far corner of the yard.

“Sir,” I said, “I don’t see my communication units, I don’t see the trucks and the antenna trailers we should have.”

The Colonel laughed, slapped me on the back, and said, “No Lieutenant, this is an Army Combat Engineer battalion. We build roads, we build bridges, we can build airfields, all under combat. You are the new commaner of Company C. Those twenty-six dump trucks over there are yours, congratulations, Son”

Dump trucks. Twenty -six dump trucks. Excuse me? Is there a mistake here? I, a highly trained tropospheric scatter station commander? Dump trucks.

And so it went. For the next several years I spent one weekend a month and two weeks each summer building forest service roads through-out North Idaho and Eastern Washington. We built playgrounds in a number of communities. We rebuilt the local fair grounds and rodeo grounds through-out our region. We fought spring-time flooding on Asotin Creek, and ran supplies to fire fighters in the Idaho forests each summer. One summer we took our trucks and men to a regional training facility, where they tried to teach us combat techniques, while building our roads. That wasn’t much fun. Mostly we did good works, building facilities for public use.

“Come with me, son,” said the Colonel, six years later. We sat in his office in Boise. He had been promoted to the state command staff, and I had taken a job in that city as well. We were together, once again, and had been for the last year. We sat in his office. “Your six years in the Guard are up, Captain,” said the Colonel, “if you re-sign, you only have to put in thirteen more years until you can retire.” Retire, me? A highly trained tropospheric scatter station commander, who has never been close to those radios again?

“Thank you Colonel,” I said, smartly saluting, “Good luck to you, and I hope to see you again.”

“And you too, Son,” said the Colonel.

* * *

I have a number of National Guard stories to share, some good, some not so good. In the future, perhaps we’ll dip into some of those.

(c) 2010 Stephen J. Matlock
This publication is the exclusive property of Stephen J. Matlock and is protected
under the US Copyright Act of 1976 and all other applicable international, federal, state and local laws. The contents of this post/story may not be reproduced as a whole or in part, by any means whatsoever, without consent of the author, Stephen J. Matlock. All rights reserved.


Annesphamily said...

I was just watching the news and a story about the Coast Guard in Mississippi where all the major flooding is. The National Guard like the Coast Guard does not get the valuable credit the other military installations do. I liked this story and enjoyed reading it. We do not think about what many do to make our lives better and especially in difficulty. Thanks for sharing with us and enjoy your Sunday! Anne

Pondside said...

The Great Dane was a communications officer for 28 years - it took us all over Canada, the USA and Germany. We don't have a National Guard up here, but I think it would be a great thing.

Judie said...

I loved reading this, Steve. The only thing I know about the Army is that my son got sent to Egypt many years ago on a national peacekeeping mission. He was glad to get home and go into the Guard.

My son-in-law was in the Guard, and was called up to serve in Iraq, even though he was 45 at the time. He has never been the same.

Glad you stayed safe so you could marry Mrs. Jenny!!!

H said...

Youmay not have done much long distance communicating or seen any combat, but it sounds as though the work you were doing all of those weekends was very valuable to the communities you served!

Ames said...

I enjoyed reading this Steve. It appears they pulled a fast one on you too.
Will you be telling us how you met Jenny sometime in the near future??~Ames

Esther Joy said...

Nice to get acquainted with "Mr. Jenny" and to read his National Guard story. Many thanks to him for his service to our great country! At the time I write this, I imagine the National Guard is being overwhelmed because of all the floods and tornadoes...

Susan Anderson said...

Sounds like you guys did some great work! I had no idea what kinds of things the National Guard were doing back in the day.

I wonder if they still get involved in their home states in such a positive way.


Jayne Martin said...

Don't guys love to play with dump trucks? That actually sounds like it could have been a fun thing to do. In the late 60s I lived in California right next door to an army reserve yard. It was during the tumultuous times of anti-war protests in Berkeley. I remember watching the guys drive out, then seeing them on that night's news confronting the students. That would have been tough since many of them weren't much older. Glad you didn't have to do that duty.