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Left Justified: My friend Steve remembers Vietnam, part one

July 29, 2009

Teachers sometimes ask their students to find a veteran and ask him (or her) about their experiences. Since I am a Vietnam veteran, I get asked a lot. But my friend since second grade, Steve Bea, was just recently asked by his nephew. The following is Steve’s response:

“Thanks for inviting me to ramble on and on; usually when I ramble, people ask me to stop! Here goes:

“I was born on the very day that the Chinese entered the war against the Americans in Korea. When I was young, I would play ‘army’ with the other boys in the neighborhood. They always had big steel helmets to play with. For some reason, when I would ask my parents for this, they would get me a little plastic pathetic thing from a toy store that I would be embarrassed to wear. I couldn’t understand why they couldn’t find the right thing. Later, I would know that the other boys had real helmets from their dads, from World War II or Korea. My own Dad, your Grandpa, never was in the Armed Forces because by the end of WWII, he was too young, and by the start of Korea, he had a child, me. By the end of Korea, he had two sons and another on the way, your Dad.

“One funny thing is that early in the Vietnam War, my Dad got a draft notice! Of course, we knew he wouldn’t go because he now had four children, and in six months he would be too old. It was funny, my Dad would get a draft notice for a war, and a few years later they would take his son, me, for the same war.

“All the young men at the age of 18 had to register for the draft. You got a randomly assigned number and, depending on the luck of the draw, your number might come up and you would be drafted. I was deferred for a while because I was in college, but when personal problems led to me failing college, I became ‘draft bait.’ Sure enough, on May 18, 1970, I was inducted in Chicago with a hundred others, and then flown to Fort Lewis near Seattle. It was my first airplane ride. What I could see of Washington from an Army base was so much more beautiful than Illinois; that is why I live here now.

“There were always rumors about how to avoid the draft. Like if you pricked your finger and dropped one drop of blood in your urine, the army would not take you. During the induction, one fellow was painted head to toe purple and orange, apparently so they would think he was crazy. They took him anyway. Sometime in the first day or two, I got the haircut.

“All Basic Training is the same, then Specialty School. I did Basic in six weeks. You throw a grenade, you shoot a gun, you get tear-gassed, you learn lots of coarse expressions, you run everywhere. You run to the mess hall and then wait 30 minutes for them to open. You eat like a horse. It’s jolly. You ‘march’ and ‘bivouac,’ you do not ‘hike’ and ‘camp.’

“We went on strike once, my company of 50 men. Mostly just because we were anti-war. For punishment, they made us put on every single item of clothing from our footlockers, including winter coats, rain coats, and gas masks, and run around the parking lot until someone fainted. It was summer, and we looked like starfish running.

“ I was sent to the Signal Corps School in Fort Monmouth, N.J. There, I learned radio, especially microwave radio for military communications (no satellite phones, no GPS). The Army model of teaching is summed up like this: ‘First, we tells ya what we’re gonna tell ya. Then, we tells ya. Then, we tells ya what we told ya.’ The Signal Corps has an official motto, but I only remember the unofficial joke motto: ‘When the going gets tough, call us…and we’ll call a soldier.’”

I will continue my friend’s story next week.

Stanley Campbell is executive director of Rockford Urban Ministries and spokesman for Rockford Peace & Justice.

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