This month’s column, I want to extend my utmost appreciation to several local businesses that made our Army Armor OCS/Vietnam Reunion so successful the third week in October. Maridel and I hosted a dozen classmates, plus wives, to a week in our beautiful Avila Valley. We especially appreciated the many discounts and perks all these fine businesses gave to the group. Once I mentioned Vietnam Veterans, it was like I said a magic word, and they all went out of their way to honor our service in a challenging time.

They include the San Luis Bay Inn for lodging, followed by the last night at Courtyard by Marriott, “Meet and Greet” at Mr. Ricks, private Lighthouse tour, winery tour, and box lunch at Kelsey’s See Canyon Winery catered by Trish Jacobs of Paso Catering, Apple Barn visit, a Pacific Coast Sunset Santa Maria Style BBQ at Spyglass Inn with great comps as well at Novo the next night.

Because our Tanya Tucker performance was canceled as well a play at the San Luis Obispo Repertory Theatre and nothing else available, we rented the Rep for our own show and lined up Brynn Albanese, a local Violinist, for a fantastic hour show, and the use of the stage for each of us to speak about what we did in the service after graduation and in life interspersed with singalongs ending with “God Bless the USA” – naturally. Then a private tour of the Warbirds Museum in Paso Robles, over to the San Simeon Pier for a box lunch, elephant seals, Morro Bay walkabout at the scenic fishing fleet, cocktail party at our home, followed by the SLO Thursday Night Market. We finished throwing axes into the targets at Battle Ax – that was hilarious watching a bunch of 80-year-olds, after a few adult beverages, trying to stick axes. The latent warrior mentality came out for sure!

Vietnam Era Vets did not get a warm welcome home, nor have our Afghanistan comrades, it appears, so it was heartwarming that these fine establishments went a long way to help soothe that wound. All of us were married, college graduates, and into our business careers which we thought in 1966 would put us low on the list for the draft. Instead, we found out it put us near the top of the list because they were drafting so many kids, the Army desperately needed young mature Army officers to take control of the training companies for Basic Training (Boot Camp), Advanced Individual Training (AIT), and Officer Candidate School (OCS). Many of us had two years of ROTC training that was required at the UC and State Universities at the time, so another reason to induct us. Most of us stayed stateside as company commanders and instructors, and of the ones that did go over, we had one casualty and several severely wounded, especially the helicopter pilots. We started with 120 in our class and ended up with ninety-one graduating, and since then, we have lost twenty-two with several in declining health.

The group coming to the Reunion three months ago was thirty-five, but doctors nixed participation for a dozen because of compromising health problems and not to risk flying in from all over the country because of Covid. The big incentive to graduate was that anyone that flunked out, because of our familiarity and understanding of machine guns, especially the famous .50 caliber still in use today, found themselves over a rice paddy staring out an open helicopter door behind one within the month. That job was rated as one of the worst places to be in the war. Most of us had not seen each other for 55 years, but as the war stories of our ten months of hell started flowing, it was like it was just yesterday. There really is a “Band of Brothers” bonding that happens in the service. I cannot remember when I laughed and hooted so much in a long time.

Personally, I stayed stateside at Ft. Knox the whole time in the service. In Basic Training, as a farm boy who grew up with rifles, pistols, and shotguns, I took “Top Gun” in the M-1 qualification out of 213 recruits that happened literally in a snowstorm – I missed a couple of targets because I could not see the darn silhouettes! For my effort, I got an unheard-of weekend pass in the middle of Boot Camp! That effort pegged me for staying at the Armor School in the Weapons Department running tank firing ranges and classroom instruction to OCS candidates and other ranks on all types of tank weapons, ammunition, firing techniques, and writing Training Manuals. The one manual that kept me from going to Vietnam because I was scheduled to go as soon as I got my 1st Lieutenant bar was for a new Top-Secret tank that fired a round with no shell casing. Everything went out the barrel, and it also could interchangeably fire a TOW missile. A captain, West Point graduate, and I were the only ones at Ft. Knox allowed to fire the darn thing which could not hit the broad side of the barn. When in the middle of testing and writing the manual, he got orders back to Vietnam, leaving me to finish up, which took an extra month. That left me less than 11 months to my discharge and too short for the 12-month tour of duty to take the trip overseas. They made a couple of hundred of the light tanks, M551, that saw little combat time, and not much later, the tank was discontinued being manufactured. For me, it was a fantastic, life-changing time to become more grounded, better well rounded, disciplined to an extent possible, and proud to this day to be an American Soldier.