The Flight Home How One Moment at Birth Shaped Life’s Choices by The Gray Dog; September 14, 2004
The current presidential campaign has torn open the scab of the Vietnam War and has exposed a festering sore that still refuses to close for many who served. One candidate has personalized his campaign in ways I am sure he did not anticipate. He has chosen that era of my life to be the central theme of his run for the presidency. No, I’m not saying this election is about my life, but he has made it impossible for me and every other person that made difficult choices or had no choice at all, to not reflect back upon that era. I am among the fortunate. I spent no time in Southeast Asia. Others have more terrifying and heart wrenching stories to tell. However, I cannot write their stories; I can only write my own.
It was in the very early hours of November 15th 1951 that my mother experienced the first labor pains that would later that day (or the next) culminate in the live birth of yours truly. As is typical of many first born, I was somewhat resistant to leave the womb. Without conscious effort on my part, I was born after a very long and difficult labor. As the story has been related to me, my birth coincided with the stroke of midnight. Immediately after my birth, my mother succumbed to the effects of drugs administered to relieve the pain of a difficult delivery. he attending doctor, being aware that my arrival occurred at the witching hour, asked my father which date he would chose to be my official date of birth. My father, looking at the clock at the moment this question was asked, responded “The 16th.”
As a child, when each birthday approached I was reminded of this story by my mother. She always told me, “I was in labor all day on the 15th of November. They should have asked me! November 15 th is your real birthday!”
This was a story heard each year and seemed to be a real bone of contention between my parents. As for myself, with one major exception, I grew up not understanding why it mattered and certainly not caring. I was just happy to make it to each milestone, receive presents and eat birthday cake. The one childhood exception occurred on my 11th birthday. My grandfather (my mother’s father) died on November 16, 1962.How I wish that this was not the first thought I have had on this date for each of the forty-two years that have since passed.
Upon graduation from high school in 1969, I applied for and received a student deferment from the draft. As I entered my first semester of college in the fall of 1969, I was only seventeen and held a draft classification of 2-S.After a serious illness that forced me to drop a full ‘quarter’ of studies at Wayne State University in Detroit, I lost my deferment and was reclassified as 1A.The sudden realization of being vulnerable hit me for the first time in my life. Wow! I only remember that I was newly eighteen, classified 1-A, and was scared. Although my parents obviously knew I had been forced to drop out of school for a term, I had kept hidden from them the fact that I had lost my student deferment. There was no one I could talk to or seek advice from. I had friends that had been drafted; I had other friends that had enlisted; Most of my friends with the security of a deferment stayed in school. No one I knew left the country. I certainly never considered going to Canada or dodging the draft even though I lived only twenty minutes from the Canadian border. But there was something not quite real about the possibility of being inducted into the army and being shipped into service without a choice. I knew then that I couldn’t and wouldn’t simply wait for that to happen. I had to be part of the decision making process.
During the spring of 1970, I decided to talk with various military recruiters and took a series of military entrance exams and scored in the highest percentile in each of four categories. I soon discovered that my test scores provided options that were not available to everyone. Not only was I able to select a branch of service and job training, I had also qualified for a preference to enter the Air National Guard. I’m not sure why I passed on the National Guard. As I look back I seem to recall thinking that if I had to enter the military I wanted to do so with the intent of gaining something from the experience that would last throughout my life. I didn’t think being ‘part-time’ was the right answer for me. I briefly considered enlisting in the Navy. You know, ‘ see the world’ stuff. I nixed that option as soon as I realized that over 70% of the world was water and that I would be seeing it on a ship with a thousand other guys.
On July 1st 1970, the Selective Service conducted the second lottery of the draft during the Vietnam War. Its purpose was to fairly (or arbitrarily) determine the induction sequence for those born in the year 1951.For those of you that wish to see the actual data, please click here Selective Service System: History and Records. I never even considered the irony of my birthday confusion at the time: The only date of importance to me was November 16th.The lottery number assigned for my birth date: 34.To this day this is the closest I have come to ‘winning’ any lottery. On July 31, 1970, only thirty days after the lottery, I enlisted in the Air Force.
After basic and computer training in Texas, I reached my first permanent duty station on December 31, 1970: Elmendorf AFB, Alaska. I soon discovered that this was often a refueling stop for the planes carrying troops being shipped to Vietnam. I remember seeing many of these ‘fresh’ recruits as the de-planed for a short break in their trip and being thankful that I was not one of them. As I look back, I realize now that I was not seeing them as individual people. They were faces without names. They were units of troops. They came and then they left.
It was the death of my grandmother in October of 1972 that initiated the longest flight aboard a military aircraft in my life. Having been granted emergency leave, I went to the MAC terminal on base to see how soon any planes would be heading back to the ‘lower forty-eight’. As my good fortune would have it, a large C141 cargo jet was scheduled to depart for Dover AFB, Delaware within the hour and my leave status bumped me ahead of a few other people waiting for a flight back to the states. As I boarded I could see that the giant cargo plane was fully loaded. Crates and canvas were strapped to the floor as far as I could see. There were no other passengers other than a retired General. He was afforded a seat up front with the flight crew.
There were no seats in the cargo area. I was shown to a side of the aircraft where a couple of canvas straps were stretched between a two structural supports. Placing my duffel under my legs, I adjusted myself onto the straps, buckled up and waited for takeoff. There were no windows to look out upon the passing landscapes. In my haste to get to the terminal I hadn’t thought to bring a book or buy a newspaper. There would be no food or drink service on this flight. There was no cute stewardess to flirt with, only a bored looking load master that occasional passed by. I tried to close my eyes and sleep but the discomfort of sitting on straps would not allow it. I thought then that this was going to be the flight from hell. I had yet to discover how right I was.
It was more than an hour into the flight before I began to notice the symmetry and shape of many of the plywood ‘crates’. Standing to stretch my legs, I looked at the tops of the crates and saw that the stenciled letters formed the names of people. The awareness that I was not the only passenger returning home slowly began to sink in. At first I was numb. Then a rush of a thousand thoughts and emotions began to flow so rapidly through my head that it became impossible to concentrate on any one of them. I sat back down and closed my eyes. I didn’t want to look at what I couldn’t walk away from. My mind recalled the images of the troops I had seen back at Elmendorf. The nameless faces I had considered to be just units of troops had now become faceless names on wooden crates in the back of a cargo plane.
After a while I forced my eyes to open. For a reason I did not understand, it became important to read the names on these boxes. I wanted to know them and memorize them. I tried to imagine their faces and how they had met their deaths, but I couldn’t. I could only imagine them as young boys living at home, growing up, playing baseball, going on dates and living a life as normal as mine had been. I didn’t know these men. Yet staring across the wooden crates I felt a great personal sense of loss. I felt blessed and fortunate for not having been sent to Nam, but now I also felt guilty and ashamed for having those thoughts. I began to question every choice I had made. I was enraged at the unfairness of the world.
I wondered about their lives, their choices and if they had actually had any choice. There were moments I felt overcome by my emotions and fought hard against the tears trying to form. I know my feelings were much more than the mourning of these unknown men. I was mourning the loss of my own innocence and feeling the guilt of simply being alive. It was late evening when our flight reached Dover AFB, Delaware. I left the plane in the dark of that night with no answers to my questions and no cure for the guilt I felt.
In the thirty-two years since that flight, I have thought about my mother’s insistence that my birthday should have been November 15th. There was new significance in this little family joke. I have since discovered that my draft lottery number would have been ‘310’.I wonder what choices I might have made then under those different circumstances. I marvel at the irony that a single choice made in a single moment in time at my birth so many years ago could have brought me to that specific place and time in 1972.
It took many years for me to realize that ‘survivors’ guilt was a misplaced and non-productive emotion. I realize now that my emotions run deep from my belief that I owe the largest possible debt of gratitude to every man and woman that sacrificed his life or limb for this country. I can only attempt to repay a small portion of that debt by honoring their memory and by supporting those who now put their lives on the line each day in the War on Terror.
We often make choices in life with no clear and certain understanding of where they will ultimately lead us. We cannot control the impact of the choices others make. When we consider a presidential candidate should we be concerned with the individual choices and circumstances that led to their own particular military service? Or are we better served by looking at the impact of their choices since that time? If you have been to this web site before, you know where I stand on the candidates in this race. I am only one voice and one vote. But the only way I can honor the memory of the men I shared a long lonely flight home with is to use it wisely.I hope that those of you that shared any part of this experience will do likewise. The choice is yours.