I had my fill with all the violence associated with stockade duty six months into my involuntary assignment to the Fort Riley, Kansas, Correctional Training Facility (CTF).
Describing my experience there would require several chapters. Along with a dozen others, I received orders to report to this insane asylum on graduating from the US Army’s Military Police School at Fort Gordon, Georgia in June, 1968. Late in December at Fort Riley I was assigned to Building #1380, the Psychotic Block, where the most dangerous and violent people in Army green were warehoused.
Early one morning an inmate, Private Campbell (not his real name), came up behind me and struck my left shoulder with a metal bunk adaptor.
A bunk adaptor is one of four hollow metal tubes, approximately 14 inches long, utilized to stack an upper Army cot to a lower Army cot to assemble a pair of bunk beds.
Instinctively, I turned and punched him with my right fist, striking him directly in the face. He fell backwards striking his head against a wall and then again on the floor. A medical team determined that the man had sustained a concussion and should be transported to the Irwin Army Hospital a few miles away, where he was treated and released several days later.
Subsequently, he was again involved in a minor altercation
with another military policeman while being served a meal. The man died two days later in his cell. Cause of death was “undetermined” and no charges were filed against me or any others who may have interacted with him. In spite of these facts, this incident and the rumors associated with it would follow me.
Early in January, 1969, I completed all the necessary paperwork (Army Form AR-1049) requesting transfer to serve in a Military Police line unit in the Republic of South Vietnam. Repeated visits to the personnel division with the NCO-in-charge proved fruitless. With no response by mid-April, I requested to speak with the Officer-in-Charge of the personnel division for some explanation as to why I hadn’t received any response.
The captain there was not receptive and chided me severely for bothering him.
Undaunted, I responded with something close to, “Sir, I am respectfully requesting to know the status of the 1049 I submitted regarding my request for transfer to Vietnam. It’s been over two months and I haven’t heard anything!”
Suffice to say, my insistence in the matter coupled with my demeanor did not go over well. He did, however, remove all doubt of what I had suspected all along when he rose from his chair and roared, “Bogison, get it in that thick head of yours and let it sink in. You ain’t going to Vietnam. You have a critical MOS (Military Occupation Specialty) and you will remain right here, at the CTF until the Army decides where you go. Not you. You will not come into this office again. Now get the fuck out of here!”
That was clear enough. Undeterred, I had already decided to change to a different strategy.
When I enlisted into the Army in February, 1968 I expected to be sent to Vietnam, just as my father and his brother had been dispatched to a combat zone during World War II when they deployed to the Pacific Campaign. As naive as it might appear now, I volunteered three years of my life by enlisting in the US Army because I believed it was the right thing to do. I was not about to pull stateside duty while the country was engaged in a war, regardless of its unpopularity. It just wasn’t in my character.
I became more frustrated with the system when later that month I learned that half of the guys who were sent with me to the CTF from Fort Gordon deployed to Vietnam, and they hadn’t even volunteered. Among them was my good friend Al Drever.
Like Al, all of them were two-year draftees with less than nine months left to serve. None of this made any sense. Six draftees with the same critical MOS with no particular inclination to serve in the Army deployed to Vietnam, while a fool like me with over a year-and-a-half left in his enlistment, volunteers to go and is rebuked for doing so.
I turned to what worked for me in junior high and high school, whenever I needed information or material for a school project. I would carefully construct a sensibly written letter — usually to a government source — that had the answers I sought.
Ironically, as a junior in high school preparing a term paper for an International Relations class in 1965, I wrote a letter to the State Department requesting any information defining the role of the United States in what was then termed in the newspapers as a “Police Action in Southeast Asia.”
Within days I received a series of papers, pamphlets, and photographs associated with the political and social structure of South Vietnam. Propaganda actually, but highly informative about a place I had never heard of, or at the time really cared about.
Thinking about this experience I recognized that every time I corresponded with the US government, I always received a polite response. I reasoned this would now be the solution to my dilemma. I also recognized that in doing so, I would be committing the biggest sin an obscure and lowly enlisted man could possibly commit in this grand “green” (the Army’s uniform color at that time) food chain.
Such action demonstrated a total disregard of the fundamental doctrine ingrained in every soldier, from private to general: launch an unauthorized communication outside the authority of a clearly defined “Chain of Command.”
The very worst that the Army could do to me was send me to the very place I was volunteering for in the first place. In 1969, any young man asked what he thought was a terrible fate, nine times out of ten he would have replied, “Go to Vietnam.”
About the fourth week in April I fashioned a concise letter explaining my desire to volunteer my services in the war. I mailed a copy to the Army Chief of Staff, one to California Governor Ronald Reagan, and one to my US Senator, George Murphy (who, coincidentally, was a member of the Armed Services Committee). Within days, I had the desired results with polite responses to my letter.
Governor Reagan’s office suggested that, since “the armed forces are separate from state government, the Governor is not the appropriate official through whom your request should be made . . . the Governor has, however, asked me to send your letter to Senator Murphy.”
Senator Murphy was more direct: “I have asked the Department of the Army to look into the situation and advise me of the possibility of your assignment to Vietnam.”
The Army, however, was already out in front and before I had seen those responses, I had been advised: “I am pleased to inform you that your request has been approved. In the near future, you will receive orders assigning you to Vietnam for movement during the month of July 1969. Your desire to serve our country by joining the forces in Vietnam . . . is appreciated, and you have my best wishes for success in your forthcoming assignment.”
Victory is a good thing but often comes at a price, and this one was no exception. I quickly learned that shaking a tree hard enough can bring unintended consequences. In this case it came swift and loud. Within a week of the welcoming news I found myself standing tall in the office of my Commanding Officer, Captain Z. Like one of Joseph Heller’s characters in the novel “Catch 22” his middle name was a repeat of his first name. Fitting, because he was a strange man. Nobody liked the guy.
A typical Ivy League college graduate raised in some small town on the east coast.
When I first arrived at Fort Riley, I mistakenly believed that because of his education coupled with the fact that he was about eight years senior to my twenty years, he had all the attributes of a good leader.
Within a week that perspective changed. It was disturbing for me to witness his condescending demeanor as he berated his seasoned, combat-hardened non-commissioned officers. All of these guys, senior NCOs, had over 15 years in the Army and most had served at least one tour of duty in Vietnam. Captain Z was raw, untested. Some of the old war horse NCOs reckoned that his lack of leadership qualities could get him killed in Vietnam. I knew what they meant.
With one week left to fulfill my obligation and forever be rid of any and all vestiges related to this square mile of insanity, I found myself standing tall and receiving my exit interview with the captain, soon to be my ex-commanding officer. After a rather lengthy lecture about his interpretation of the US Army’s definition of precisely what the chain of command means and my total disregard in following it, I received an equal earful on how I was going to be repaid for my blatant disrespect to my superiors.
The one-sided conversation went something close to the following:
“Well, Bogison if it were in my power, I would bust you down to PFC (Private First Class) for pulling off what you did. You may have won a little battle here but I can just about assure you that you will spend your time in Vietnam doing the same thing you did here. You’re headed to LBJ (Long Binh Jail), boy. I will be going to Vietnam soon myself. Unlike you, however, I will be going to a military police unit. So, it is very doubtful that our paths will cross. You made this bed now you’re gonna have to go lie in it. That’s all. Check all your equipment with the supply sergeant.
And I mean everything. Good luck Specialist. Get out!”
It was a slightly painful experience as I hadn’t been berated quite to that degree in a one-way conversation in my life. Particularly galling because I had freely volunteered to serve in a combat zone. When I reported to the supply sergeant, name forgotten but not his idiocy, he made it clear that I would not be receiving a coffee mug or standard plaque-mounted, custom made CTF certificate of appreciation for meritorious performance of duties for my time assigned to the unit, as was customary for any other troop transferring out.
Not that I really cared about such nonsense. But angered by his condescension and sanctimony, two days later I broke into the building and took a handsome forest-green mug with the ornate gold lettering of the Unit logo (green and gold being the US Army’s Military Police Corps colors).
I got the same cold shoulder when I reported to the personnel division to pick up my records and transfer orders. So much for all things CTF.