Fort Jackson, South Carolina
For more than two months, Simms and I spent time together as holdovers at Fort Dix. We became pretty good friends. We worked together, went to see movies together, and enjoyed the club and gym together. He was a good guy. Then unexpectedly, one morning, when we reported to headquarters for our daily assignments, I was handed my new orders, which instructed me to report to Fort Jackson for advanced individual training (AIT). My military occupational specialty (MOS) was to be 11B. For the most part, we didn’t know what the MOS codes stood for, but we all knew what Eleven Bravo was. They were sending me to South Carolina for infantry training. WTF! I wasn’t old enough to become an MP, but I was old enough to become an infantry soldier. Nothing about the Army made sense to me. Simms and I shook hands and said goodbye. I never saw or heard from him again.
When I arrived at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, I had a homesick and lonely feeling, and I was depressed. Not only because I was going to be in the infantry, but mostly because I had never been that far away from home before, and also because once again, I didn’t know a single person there. All of the guys that I knew from basic training had already completed their AIT training and moved on to their permanent assignments. I knew that all the weekend visits to home were over. It was too far away and also too costly to fly every weekend as I did from Fort Dix. I was anxious to get on with the next eight weeks of training.
I was impressed with how Fort Jackson appeared to be so much more modern and updated compared to the old Fort Dix. Fort Jackson looked so “military,” just like a model military base that you might see in a movie, all spic-and-span shiny clean and orderly. The brick buildings appeared to be reasonably new.
Infantry training was a lot like basic training except without the harassment, mental anguish, and berating that we received from the basic training Drill Instructors. This new batch of instructors still didn’t take any BS from anyone, and they were also strict, no-nonsense lifers, but they treated us with a little more dignity. We continued to have PT daily, but I was a little bit out of shape from the long layover following basic training. Almost all of the other guys had arrived there directly from their basic training and were still in good physical condition. It didn’t take me long to get up to speed, though, and infantry training wasn’t too bad. It took me a while, but I got to know a few of the guys and eventually became friends with McGrory. He and I stuck together throughout AIT. With only a few weeks of training under our belts, we were pleasantly surprised to learn that all of us were going to get a two-week Christmas leave! I was excited to think about going home to see my family and Diane again so soon. I thought about getting married while on leave but decided we should wait until after training was complete. Then we would know for sure where the Army chose to station me permanently.
Training immediately resumed upon returning from a great Christmas leave. We spent a lot of time training with the various weapons once again, becoming more proficient with them. It soon became evident that they were preparing us for Vietnam. That didn’t mean that we were all going to Nam, but they trained us as if we were just in case. I think most of us still kept in mind that there were infantry units stationed in the states, and all over the world, not only in Vietnam. Most of the sergeants that trained us, if not all of them, were Vietnam vets. You could always tell which sergeants were the combat veterans because they proudly wore the Combat Infantryman Badge (CIB) above the left pocket on their fatigue shirts. The CIB was something that we learned to respect because it is the highest honor that an infantry soldier can receive. On a soldier’s uniform, the placement of the CIB is above all other medals. Even on the highest-ranking General’s class A dress uniform, you will see the CIB above all of his dozens of ribbons and medals. I couldn’t imagine what the training instructors must have gone through to earn such a prestigious award, and I certainly couldn’t imagine myself ever receiving one.
Combat Infantryman Badge (CIB)
Fort Jackson even had a simulated Vietnam village constructed for training purposes. The bamboo and thatch huts sure looked real. We were trained on infantry tactics, played war games, searched and cleared villages, went on patrols and night maneuvers. The thoughts of going to Nam were becoming more and more prevalent now even though we heard that only a few guys from the previous AIT class had to go. It’s hard not to think about it when all of the training was preparing you for combat. Vietnam was on everyone’s mind. Nobody seemed to be scared though or worried about it, at least not outwardly. We joked about it a lot and made light of it. What else could you do? I remember each day after the training when we returned to the barracks; one of the guys had his stereo cassette player set to play the same Vietnam song. He walked into his room and pressed the play button on the audio cassette tape player and cranked up the volume. The title of the song was “I Feel Like I’m Fixin To Die” by Country Joe McDonald. Every single day that song blasted through the entire barracks, and you could hear 40 or 50 guys singing loudly along with it.
Time passed fairly quickly during the training weeks, but I hated the weekends. A lot of guys went home on the weekend or out to the bars in the nearby city of Columbia, SC, while I almost always stayed on base. I didn’t like going off base with some of the other guys. I was afraid of getting myself into trouble or fights, and I had no interest in going out looking for girls. Sometimes McGrory and I went to the movie theater or the clubs on base and drank beer and had fun. I went to the gym often and worked out to pass the time. The downtime was the worst part because that is when I missed Diane the most.
One morning during the last few weeks of training, the commanding officer (C.O.) lectured us while we were standing in formation. He stated that he thought we were becoming too “lax” in our training and wanted us to pay attention and work harder if we wanted to stay alive over there. The possibility of going to Nam was becoming more of a probability in my mind as his next statement kind of shocked us. He told us that at least 90% of our company would be going over there. The ranks were silent and somber. During the final two weeks of training, I still held out hope that I could be one of the 10% not going, but that’s not very good odds. Then finally, on graduation day, along with our promotions to E-3 private first class (PFC), our orders were handed out. It was official almost all of us, including McGrory and I, were ordered to report to Fort Lewis, Washington, to be processed out of the country to Vietnam. I had just turned 19 years old.