One of the great things that came out of the protests of the war in Vietnam was the abolishment of mandatory Reserve Officers' Training Corps, better known as ROTC, in America's colleges. But it happened too late to help me.
To get out of college, that is to graduate, you had to take ROTC for two years and pass it. I went to Indiana University. I couldn't get out of it. So there I am, issued a uniform and a rifle, without bullets, and black shoes and a hat, but before it came to that, early on in the class in my freshman year, we all had to take a test.
There had to be hundreds of guys in that class. (I don't recall seeing any females. I'm sure I would have remembered.) The week after the test the results were posted on a board outside the classroom. I scanned the list, starting at the very bottom, which is where I was sure I placed. But my name was not down there. I looked again. There had to be some sort of mistake. After skimming through page after page, I came to the first page, the top, where the ones who got the best grades are listed. There to my astonishment right near the top was my name. Now I knew there had to be a mistake of some kind.
But there wasn't. I was mortified. The last thing I wanted was to stand out, to be called attention to, because that would mean additional assignments or some such thing.
I was right. Not long after the test I was awarded sergeant stripes. I didn't want them. I knew they would carry additional responsibilities. All I wanted to do was the bare minimum that would get me a D- and get me out of there.
So I put the stripes in my pocket and hoped no one would notice. But of course they did. I made it through a couple classes and drills; mostly the course consisted of drills that included marching and whipping the gun around and parades. The officers were upperclassmen. The underclass guys were the lowly recruits. You walked across campus in your uniform and frat guys would yell at you from their windows, mocking and jeering.
I made the mistake of telling a friend who was also a senior officer about the stripes. I thought our friendship trumped his loyalty to the corps. I was wrong, of course.
So one day a real Army officer, not an upperclassman, calls me aside and gets right in my face. Yelling, “Attention!” and all that, and I stand there like a statue, only statues don't tremble in terror, and he says “Soldier, where are your stripes?”
I answer in a shaky whisper, “In my pocket sir.”
His face is beet red. His cap is pulled down over his eyes. “In your pocket? Don't you want to be a soldier?”
I had to answer the truth. “Not really, sir.”
I had no interest in fighting people who had never done anything to me, a sentiment best put by Muhammad Ali, heavyweight boxing champion of the world, who answered, when asked why he opposed the war, “Man, I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.”
Finally, thankfully, mercifully, the next-to-last class arrived. The only problem is this is the class where every single soldier had to take turns leading the drill. I was terrified. I couldn't even follow orders. How could I possibly give them? I would be marching right foot out when it was supposed to be left foot, you know, little things like that.
So I did what any sensible inept young male would do: I skipped the class. The next class, the very last one, seemed to go OK, and I thought I had gotten away with it when suddenly the dreaded words: “All men who did not complete the leadership drill fall out.”
There were five of us. I figured I was in for an hour of utter humiliation and that I would be the worst of the five. But there was no way out. I had to do it. And then I learned a lesson. No matter how bad you think you are at something, there might, just might, be someone even worse. Turns out that compared to the other four I was a regular Gen. Patton.
I barked out the commands, “To the rear march. Left flank march.” And so on. Then came the turn of the guy next to me. A guy I grew up watching on television. An Indiana high school sports legend. Let's just say that his commanding style wasn't quite up to his athletic prowess. Nervous and under pressure he told us, ordered is not the word here, to “Go left. March backwards. Turn right.”
Always the good soldiers, eager to obey, we turned right, right into a wire fence alongside the bleacher in the field house. We got all tangled up.
Now panicky, he told us, “Get out, get out.”
The commanding officer had seen enough. He lined us up. I thought maybe we would be shot. Instead we got yelled at.
“Men, in my 30 years of wearing this uniform proudly serving my country, you are the worst excuses for soldiers I have ever seen.”
One of the five, nervous, said, “Thank you, sir.”
I told my draft board — back then you could get drafted — that I had served my country for my two years. “I protected and defended Indiana University. Despite being one of the worst soldiers in American history, I did my job. The university is still there and in good shape.”