A few weeks later, following the stand-down announcement, I was walking outside of the barracks when the company clerk walked by. In passing, he told me that my transfer orders came in. He was so casual about it like it was ordinary news that he delivered daily. He knew that we were anxiously anticipating our new assignment orders. I asked him,” Where are they sending me?” He said, “You got ETS orders.” I repeated his words: “ETS!” “He replied, “Yep, that’s what I said: ETS.” I was in shock; I couldn’t believe my ears. I was elated. That meant I was going home!!
I remember praying: “GOD, don’t let anything happen to me now. I’m too short, and I’m going home!” I know that sounds strange, but I do sincerely believe that God had been watching over me during my entire time in the service. There were just too many bad situations that worked out in my favor, and there were too many close calls and too many incidents that could have been tragic for all of them to be chalked up as just good luck or coincidence. Besides, God told me back in the beginning at Cam Ranh Bay that everything was going to be okay.
As I was thinking about going home soon, I gave a lot of thought to what I wanted to do next with my life. I had four top priorities in mind:
- Marry Diane.
- Spend more time with my brothers and sisters, developing a closer relationship.
- Go to school on the GI bill.
- Buy a motorcycle.
Mixed in with the excitement and anticipation of going home and getting out of the Army were concerns about the changes that I had undergone. It is strange how a person can adapt to and get used to their environment no matter how insane it is. Living with weapons and sleeping in bunkers or rice paddies or jungles was our “normal” routine. The high adrenaline rushes, the times of extreme fear, as well as the lowest times of depression and homesickness and loneliness were common extremes that you learn to accept as “normal.” You see so much and experience so much that something inside of you changes forever, and it all becomes a part of who you are. I was living in a different world, and it seemed like a lifetime ago that I left home. I was nearing the end of my teenage years, but I knew that the naïve carefree teenage boy in me was gone long ago. It felt like he left me years ago.
A year-long journey of changes. Does it show?!
I was a little bit apprehensive. Would friends and family back home view me differently now? How would I be perceived as a Vietnam Veteran? And, more importantly, was my relationship with Diane going to be okay.
Ten days after my 20th birthday, I had orders to report to Cam Ranh Bay for processing out of the country. That’s where my one-year tour of duty began ten and a half months earlier, and that’s where it ended, six weeks early. As it turned out, I had enough time in-country to qualify for rotation out of the country. Those with less than ten months had to transfer to other units. Bannar had to stay; Jarvis and I were going home. And because I was held over for so long at Fort Dix, I had enough time in the service to be eligible for discharge. Draftees with less time were transferred to Army bases in the states to complete their two years of service. It’s funny how things seem to work out in the end, sometimes.
At Cam Ranh, we changed out our old jungle fatigues for new khaki uniforms. They gave us flight tickets and orders to report to Fort Lewis, Washington, for ETS processing out of the Army.
As the “Freedom Bird” lifted off the runway and departed Vietnam soil, cheers immediately erupted from the men. I sat with Jarvis on that long flight home, just like I sat with him in those bunkers night after night. We had a refueling stop in Alaska where it was so cold that it took my breath away as we stepped off the plane. Finally, we arrived in Seattle, Washington, in the middle of a snowstorm. We had just returned from a tropical sweatbox wearing short-sleeved khaki uniforms, and it felt great! I was back in “The World!”
It was early in the morning when we arrived, and they served us steak and eggs for breakfast. Throughout the day, they put us through all of the processing routines. The Army never changes; they work at a snail’s pace on their own schedule. We each patiently waited our turn as we stood in lines, enduring the Army bureaucracy, but they treated us with dignity and respect. They told us that those who were not able to schedule flights out until the next day could stay on base in the barracks overnight. I thought to myself, “No way man!” I chose to sleep on a bench in the airport instead. We signed a lot of papers, and then just like that, the Army set us free, and I was a civilian again! My emotions were a mixture of jubilation and a little sadness. I was going to miss a lot of those guys. Jarvis and I shook hands and said goodbye. I never saw him again.
Wearing khaki uniforms, we boarded the “Freedom Bird” that flew us back to “The World.”