I got drafted on our wedding day. I was coming down the stairs in my tuxedo, and my father was at the bottom waving an envelope and saying, "Look what came today." It was Sept. 2, 1967, and the Vietnam War had started to burn white hot during the summer that followed my college graduation. I was rated 1A by the draft board, and now had an invitation to join the fray.
I served in the Army for two years and was put on orders for Vietnam twice. I looked on those mimeographed papers as a death sentence because my basic training sergeant, who had a thick Spanish accent, was fond of saying, "Batavick, you go Vietnam, you get keeled." Of course, he usually murmured this in my ear after I accidentally dropped my weapon or poorly executed the "rear take-down and stranglehold" during hand-to-hand combat training. I was far from being the heroic figure on a recruiting poster.
After basic, I was sent to clerk school because of my English major degree, and then temporarily stationed at Fort Myer, Va. I was to be a company clerk like M.A.S.H.'s Radar O'Reilly, but instead of Korea I was Vietnam-bound. I sat through a few of the Army's mandatory classes that tried to explain why we were fighting in some jungle 9,000 miles away. Then just as I was about to get my shots, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. The neighborhoods in nearby Washington erupted in violence and flames. I still remember standing on a hill outside the commissary and looking across the Potomac at the city's white monuments outlined against a scrim of black smoke. It was an eyes wide-open nightmare. My fellow soldiers and I were taken off orders and put on riot control.
When the looting stopped and the fires died, I was again put on orders for Vietnam. But this time my son saved me. It was late April and I told my sergeant that my wife was having a baby at the end of June. He ticked off the months on his fingers, and then told me that I had to be taken off orders again. A new regulation supposedly prevented a soldier from being sent into a combat zone if his wife was giving birth within so many days of departure.
I don't know if this was true or if my old sergeant just took pity on me and pulled some strings. I spent the rest of my two years as a desk jockey typing requisition forms at the Army Security Agency. To be honest, I was relieved, but to this day I feel a pang of regret that I missed out on one of the great (mis)adventures of my generation.
I think of my Army experience whenever Memorial Day rolls around. I sadly note how mattress sales, picnics, and the first dip in the pool have seemingly pushed the purpose of this noble holiday into the shadows. Towns will hold ceremonies around the county, but these will be sparsely attended, as few wish to include speeches and the haunting notes of Taps in their holiday routine.
It was not always so. Memorial Day observances date back to the years following the Civil War. We first called it Decoration Day — a day on which people were encouraged to visit cemeteries and decorate the graves of the fallen with the flowers of spring. There were many graves and many flowers needed, as more than 600,000 soldiers from both sides had made the ultimate sacrifice.
Now Memorial Day commemorates the fallen military of every war, from the frozen fields of Valley Forge to the dusty streets of Kabul. All of their lives were precious and all of their intentions honorable, even when ill-served by politicians who premised our nation's conflicts more on folly than freedom.
I can't help but think back on all the fresh young faces in my company at Fort Dix, N.J., drawn from the apple orchard towns of New York and the mean streets of Camden. When I first visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, I was taken with its somber design and solemn tally of names. I also wondered how many of the guys I served with have their identities etched forever in that dark, sinister rock. Then I said a silent prayer, both for them and for me.
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Frank Batavick writes from Westminster. His column appears Fridays. Email him at email@example.com.