Military Stories #20


So now I knew the dark side of the Army, the source of the movie MASH and

Catch 22. Writers wrote about this, even Tim O’Brian wrote about it. If I had gone from basic training directly to Korea then I would have had a very cynical view of the Army and the social value. Instead I experienced eight times the training experience that most soldiers had. I experienced more than a year at the most important and most secure post in the military. It was a huge contrast to what I experienced in Korea.

What over shadowed the physical elements was the emotional issues created by leaving my family. If I tried using “I’m doing thus to protect my family at home,” then what happens when the Korean service destroys your family at home? If you are serving for the honor, and discipline, then what happens when you see incompetence and sloth? Korea brought everything back to the ultimate basic, live to survive.

While we were in a combat zone, and we received combat pay, it wasn’t nearly the action that Vietnam grunts were receiving. Although, maybe the percentages were closer than we thought. At one time there was well over a million men serving in country, yet the weekly casualties were in the thousands. In Korea we had about 30,000 men, and the worst casualties were only a hand full.  Yet, everyone in Korea knew of the last incursion, everyone knew of the last infiltrator’s kill. Except me!

Several weeks after arriving I got bored sitting in the Comm Center with nothing to do. They didn’t need my technical skills and I couldn’t be reassigned. So I did the very thing that my bones knew I shouldn’t do, I volunteered. I volunteered to ride shotgun on the courier run to Seoul. It was an eight hour round trip run down to Seoul and back, following the Han River most of the way. It also paralleled the entire DMZ so that we were constantly under the watch of young South Korean soldiers, who followed our every movement with twin .50 caliber machine guns. I hoped the trigger safety was on.

The driver of the jeep, Wade, was from Texas and had a simple and direct way of speaking. I noticed that the accelerator was floored the whole time, the jeep’s engine was “floating”, running as fast as it could, red lining the whole time. It was Wade’s personal desire to blow-up as many jeeps as possible, he was now on his ninth and he had a few months left. After a while, I asked what had happened to his previous guard. Did he rotate home? Or did he get reassigned?  “Nope, got a head shot, and some of his brains hit me in the shoulder.”   Wow, okay. The guy that used to sit in my seat got hit by a sniper. I asked if it was North or South Korean, Wade just laughed and said, “infiltrators”.

Over the next few months I would learn a lot about “infiltrators”. We were called out several times because someone saw a person or persons coming over or under the wire. We grabbed weapons from the armory, and unloaded on sections of the fence. A dozen rounds would come in our direction, 25,000 rounds would go in their direction. There were times when the chain link fence actually disappeared. We hardly ever found bodies. They were never in uniform so we don’t know if they were poor South Koreans looking to steal and sell on the Black Market, so maybe they were die hard crazy North Koreans. 

I began thinking about ways to get out of this hellhole. Death and disaster was getting too close. Soon after I was sent to pull bodies out of the river due to a helicopter accident I began to seriously think how I could get back to the states. I finally decided that if I could get back, then even if I was locked up, it might be worth it. I had taken quite a few MAC flights to various places in Asia. They were free flights, based upon space availability. If I could get leave papers with my home address on them, I might be able to get on a plane.  I wouldn’t have the proper papers to leave my theatre of operations but that wouldn’t be found out until I landed at Travis Air Force base in California.  I just had to get leave, but I had used up my leave before I came to Korea.

Meanwhile, the alcohol flowed for the older sergeants, and the marihuana smoked for everyone else. My life until then was mostly drug free. I avoided it when I could, I never hitchhiked with drugs because I feared jail, I never had drugs in training because they tested regularly. In Korea they didn’t test, they just tried to catch you.  Papers were not allowed, if you said that you rolled your own cigarettes they said tough, threw you a pack and confiscated the rolling papers. No one was fool enough to put weed in their lockers, it was in paper bags on top of the lockers, in public space. No one would steal it because it was five dollars for a pound, and twenty-five dollars for a duffel bag.

With no papers available, the only thing left was a hidden pipe, or grabbing double hand fulls to throw on the space heaters. In just a few minutes the entire hut was filled with dense smoke to the knees. We didn’t call it “hot boxing”, but that’s what it was. I did my best to avoid all this but there were many weeks I woke up stoned because of the “hot box” or squad members blowing smoke in my face as I slept.

I finally used my skill at making disguised pipes to convince people that it was in their best interest to keep me from being stoned. Unfortunately the drug issues were escalating. More and more grunts were tearing up the local villages from alcohol or drugs, or a combination, we had an influx of Vietnam vets that hadn’t completed their overseas hitch, an they were causing problems. I knew all this because I has in the Comm Center, and I saw the request for help, for drug sniffing dogs, and I knew when they were coming and where they were going to hit. It would be a big sweep and the users and maybe non-users would all spend some time in the brig.

I warned my barracks that we were to be targeted. The leaders got together and decided to boil three or four pounds of weed, until it was a thick brown soup. They then took the soup, and just hours before the dogs arrived, they poured a trail outside our hut, down the sidewalk to our alcoholic first sergeant’s hut where he lived with his girlfriend in drunken stupor most of the time. The sergeant had the whole hut to himself and anyone he would invite. The dogs came, they sniffed and raced to the sergeant’s hut, circled barking, then fell down. Apparently the smell was so strong that it ruined the dogs for several weeks.  I remember walking out of our hut, looking left to see our first sergeant standing there in a flowered dressing robe, talking to the MPs. They were no doubt asking why this woman was living in his quarters.

I knew it was only a matter of time before I would do something foolish, or that I would be court martialed for some insane act.

Just weeks earlier I was sound asleep in the outer room of the Comm Center. I had been up for more than twenty hours so I stretched out on a couple of chairs. I had three guys in the Center taking care of the messages and doing maintenance. I deserved a nap. 
I woke up to someone pounding on our outer security door. Since it was reinforced metal straps the pounding was quite loud. I went to the security peep hole and I saw an American artillery captain with a disgusted look on his face. I inquired what was the matter. He replied, “Open up, I smell dope coming out of your bathroom vent pipe.”

This was a lot of information to process. As far as opening up, well, he was most certainly not on the entry list. Even if he was a captain. Concerning the smelling of dope coming out of the vent? Well, I knew the vent was on the roof, and he probably didn’t climb the roof. Maybe he smelled something, then saw smoke coming out of the vent.  Was it possible that my guys were in the bathroom smoking weed while I was napping in the chairs?  Well, yes, that was certainly possible, in fact, knowing my guys, it was almost certainly true.

“Sorry Sir, I can’t let you in, you are not on my entry list.”, I ventured.
“You better damn well let me in, that is an order soldier.”, he yelled.
I didn’t want the whole post to be a part of this discussion so I considered letting him in to the outer room, while I retreated to the inner battle door. The outer room was designed to be a kill zone where intruders could breach the outer door and be trapped by the inner battle door where heavy weaponry was easily within reach. I removed the door bolt and stepped back behind the battle door. The captain charged in, but stepping almost in West Point style. Very curious.

He had never been in the Comm Center, so he was a bit baffled by not yet being in the Comm Center. He now restated that he wanted to be let it, except that he was let in. So then he asked, “Are you guys smoking dope on duty?”  Technically, I was one of the guys, and I was not smoking dope, so I said, “No, sir”.  That was not the answer he wanted so he demanded to be allowed further inside. I said again that he wasn’t on my entry list and that he could go see my commanding office to clarify things. That only made him madder and he proceeded to shoulder the battle door open.

That’s when I reached for the shotgun behind the door, and then poked him in the chest with the barrel. There was a moment of quiet when everyone had a chance to assess where the next few moments were going. On his part, it went to controlled rage. An enlisted man had threaten him with bodily harm to protect his dope smoking buddies. He viewed this as a terrible bluff, an insulting bluff. He responded with the typical boot camp idiom, “Never point a weapon unless you are going to use it.”

I replied by pumping the shotgun quickly and flipping the safety off. Then I told him, “Back away, Sir”,  “You are not on my list!”,
Another set of seconds slipped away. Was I crazy, would I shoot? How far does this go? By this time, my dope smoking troops had flushed the joints, and had called the commanding officer to coming running, “Diestler is fixing to shoot a captain, please come fast.”

Things pretty much remained in a frozen position until the CO came. He calmly talked to the captain, the captain’s eyes never leaving my face. On my part, the only movement was to engage the trigger safety. No point in killing the captain and my CO.

Minutes later, the CO entered the outer room without the captain. He ordered me to remount the shotgun and step in the outer room. He said nothing about the dope smoke. He said that he was considering courts martial for me. I had disregarded a special order and had let a person in to a secure facility. He asked if I had anything to say in my defense. I said that I was guilty but I had made a judgement call to bring the dispute inside, instead of out in the street. Besides, he did not enter the significant secure area, and that the outer room provided a kill zone that would reduce the potential of innocent victims being harmed.

He thought for a while, then said carry on, but consider that this was a warning, you are to shoot intruders.
I stepped back in to the main Comm Center where my guys where sheepishly hanging their heads. I told them that the next time I will shoot the captain, but I won’t stop there. I will clear the room until every one is taken out. Everyone got the message.

Knowing that I had started collecting many more enemies than the current group of North Koreans across the DMZ, I approached my lieutenant and opened up. I needed to go home or something awful was going to occur. It wasn’t a threat, and he didn’t take it as such. He asked what was it that he could do? I said to give me advanced leave, and to put my home address on the leave papers. He explained that wasn’t going to work, and I said good, then he wasn’t really helping me, and he would get in trouble.  I had part of the necessary papers, t went backed to the hut and packed a duffle bag to head to the airport. I told my closest friends that this was one-way and I probably wasn’t coming back, unless they arrest me.

It was an underhanded way to leave, no party, no parade. I only said goodbye to a very few people. I went to Seoul and jumped on the first MAC flight to California. Went I landed at Travis I thought I just might sneak through if I got in the middle of everyone being processed. Things were looked good until the MP asked for my travel papers. I knew I was missing a few but what the heck, I was going to be in the brig in California. Then the MP saw my address, “Hey, did you go to Richmond High? I graduated from DeAnza in ’68. Did you know Shelley? She was hot, she went Richmond”.  He went on for five minutes, he never looked for my missing papers. He just stamped everything and said good luck.

I spent the next few days trying to see where my marriage had ended. Well, it was more like when it had ended. She finally told me that things were not good but she didn’t want to send me a Dear John letter. Then there was the immediate problem of our son. She had a job offer that she needed to check out, so maybe I could take care of my son while she set up an apartment and so on. I asked how long and she said a couple of weeks. I didn’t  have a couple of weeks. 

Short story is that I turned myself in to the Presidio at the end of my leave. I still had custody of my son and I wasn’t certain of when she was coming back. I was told this was a scam to keep me in the states. I said no, I had other scams but I wasn’t using them, this was real.  I placed my son in child care and reported for duty. They didn’t trust me, and besides my security clearance hadn’t come through. They asked if I didn’t mind working in the forms warehouse.  Fine with me.

Several weeks passed, I still had my son, but my wife said any day now. While I was pulling forms from requests all around the western U.S. I found a form that requested an early ETS (separation) due to education. I was getting out in November. School starts in September. I could get an early out if I applied. So I sent the form in and I waited, it was now July, 1973.  My wife had picked up my son and I was alone. I reported every day. My first sergeant got tired of me and told me I could call in until the form came back.  In August I got a job, I was still in the Army but now I was just calling in. Then I got the call to show up in uniform to the Oakland Army terminal. I was processed out in time to register for college in September.

As dramatic as my entry into the service, it was exactly the opposite when I left. I slid out unnoticed and forgotten.