A good buddy from long ago and far away (high school) asked me about my military service,
and I told him that it was a good story, one I had never written down,
but wanted to, many times over the years.
I finally got around to writing the story, every bit of which is true.

War Stories

(How I earned a medal of honor, without really trying, and Other True Stories)

"What did you do in the war, daddy?"

This is a question every son will ask at a young age, when he is still forming his thinking about such a horrible thing as War. What was it like? Did you see any dead people? Did you kill anyone? How bad was it?

Many people who have been up close and personal with War will avoid the details. They are too gruesome to recall. They don't want to relive it.

Military people come in all types. Some are the trained killers, such as infantrymen, tank drivers, Navy seals, fighter pilots. Some are support services, such as mechanics, cooks, and administrative assistants. It is a team effort, and they are all necessary.

My father served in World War II, working in the bowels of the engine room, on board merchant ships supplying war materiel across the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean. They were hunted by German U-boats, but he was one of the lucky ones, and he survived without a scratch.

Those were the Days of Conscription, whereby the ranks of the military were filled with common citizens as a matter of The Duty of Every Man to Serve His Country in Time of War. Every man at the age of 18 was required to Register with the Selective Service Administration, which would test you in several ways and in their Ultimate Judgment, they would assign you to a job that would best serve the needs and desires of the Military. Mostly, this would be in the Army, as an infantryman. Probably the worst job in the military. There was just no way around this situation. It was the Law of the Land. Every man had a duty. Period.

Well, ok, there are a few exceptions:

1. Be Physically/Mentally unfit. If the recruiter thinks that you are going to be unable to make it through the rigors of Basic Training, or are mentally retarded, or if you have some disease, or are homosexual, then you are assigned a rating of 4F, and you do not serve. They don't want you, even as target practice. My health was good, and I'm straight, so it looked like I wasn't going to get out on the technicality.

2. Be in College. College is good for America. We need smart people to get smarter, so they can lead us. Let's put the Dumb people on the front lines. They can get shot first, no big loss. Hey, don't blame me. This was the Law of the Land at the time. The fly in the ointment with the College Option is that it is only a Deferment. When you get out of college, you still have that Duty waiting for you! I was looking for a more permanent solution, but a temporary one would do. When I turned 18, just out of High School, I had no desire to do More School, although certainly going to school for 4 more years was a lot better than getting shot at for 4 more years. Let's look at another possible solution...

3. Be Married. It seemed that our Military wanted to encourage people to get married young, because if you were married, you didn't have to serve. They didn't want to create hardship for a young bride, possibly a mother to be. A Married man was a good man for America. Let him be. He will fight no War unless the Evil Enemy is swarming our shores, and then it will be Every Man to Battle Stations. Until then, let the Married Man bring forth more young soldiers, and more leaders who will go to college (and when they graduate, then we will kill them in our wars). Women of course, were exempt from the Duty of Men to protect our Nation. So then, here we have the solution to avoiding getting shot at: get married. Marriage is certainly better than getting shot at, isn't it? And besides, there is all that free sex! You sure don't get a lot of that with the getting shot at, do you? Problem solved. So I asked my girlfriend at the time to Marry Me, and when she stopped laughing, I knew I had to either go to college or or I would get shot at. Chronicled elsewhere are stories of How I Got Into College, My College Capers, and The Miracle of My Graduation from College. These are my war stories. And, so it was that after college, I found myself still facing my Duty As An American to serve in the Military. There was one possible option left, and that was to Volunteer, with a deal.

4. Volunteer. If you volunteer for some other branch of the Military and make a deal with them, then you will pre-empt the wisdom of the Selective Service Administration, and they will let you take the deal you made with the other service. So if you would prefer to get shot at in an airplane instead of on the ground, then you could join the Air Corps. If you like torpedos shot at you while you are on a ship, you join the Navy. This still seemed to me like a less than perfect solution because it still involved getting shot at. What other non-getting-shot-at jobs are available?

In discussions with the recruiter, and with others in my situation, it was the wisdom of the time to volunteer for the National Guard, a reserve military organization that is a state-based ready reserve from which the Military would draw only as needed. Some state National Guard units filled various support functions that were far removed from the front lines. In West Virginia, only 50 miles or so away from my home at the time, in Hagerstown, MD, there was an Air National Guard unit (167 Airlift Wing) that operated heavy lift, long range aircraft, of the sort that would land far behind the front lines, to re-supply food and ammunition. Not the sort that would expect to be shot at.

Better yet, this Air National Guard unit, nestled in some comfy foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, in some remote corner of West Virginia, supported these aging aircraft with computer equipment from IBM, from the home base in Martinsburg WV. Since I was then working for IBM (another great story in itself), it seemed natural that they would accept me as a soldier who would work with this equipment, in the safety and comfort of the only air-conditioned office on the base. This is the deal I went after with the Recruiter, and I got it. All I had to do was make it through Basic Training in San Antonio, TX (Lackland Air Force Base), and then pass a test to prove that I could bypass 6 months of training for the job, and be immediately productive. This would mean that my total time away from the comforts of my home would be about 6 weeks of Basic Training, and I most probably will not get shot at, but all guarantees are out the window when the Evil Ones are coming down the highway, killing every last Christian Mother's son of us. For this special privilege, I promised to be a good soldier for the next 6 years, the first 6 months of which are full-time Active Duty (in the air conditioned office), and then show up one weekend a month plus two full weeks once a year for Summer Camp. This approach to Military Service had the least potential for getting shot. So that's the deal I went after, and that's the deal I got.

The unknown part of the deal was whether I could make it through Basic Training. In this regard, I figured I would do ok. I was reasonably fit. I did cross country running in high school and college, so I figured I could handle the marching. I could even do a few pushups. I was sure I could make it through.

My second day at Basic Training would test that theory.

The plane took off early in the morning from Martinsburg WV, and we flew slowly around thunderstorms, and stopped at a couple of other bases along the way to pick up other recruits, and when we finally landed in San Antonio, it had been a long, tiring day. We still had to pick up our military clothes, get haircuts, make our bunks, and a thousand details only the military can invent, such as removing every single one of the "inspected by" tags in every piece of clothing, and every piece of equipment. Any tags found from this day forward and you will sorely regret it. They were very serious about this, as if a single tag could lose the war. Finally we were allowed to collapse into our bunks to get a few hours sleep before being rudely interrupted in the middle of the night (it was still dark out) with Uncle Sam's personal assistant screaming at the top of his lungs for us to show him "50 swinging dicks getting the f... up and at attention Right Now" as if the Future of the United States of America was hanging in the balance, and we would be shot for Treason or Desertion if it didn't happen with the speed of Light.

And so began the first of many mornings of screaming and swearing and attempts to demean and humiliate and punish a random group of men who were simply doing their duty. On that very second day, we were all dressed alike, in green fatigues and black combat boots, all with new buzz haircuts, and marched over to the central drill pad. Here we joined hundreds of others just like us, and were instructed to remain at attention until some Great Leader arrived to address us. At the start of his talk, he instructed us to sit on the tarmac, for it would surely be a long speech, and we must be comfortable so we can pay full attention to this very important information that will form the foundation for our entire Military Life to Follow.

It was cold when we got there, but as the morning wore on, the sun heated up the place real good, and soon I was fast asleep, dog tired from the long day before, and probably the excessive partying on my last night as a Free Man, my last celebration as a Free Man.

I don't know how long I was asleep, but it must have been some time, because when I woke up, all the other troops were gone, and I was sitting alone, with my Drill Sergeant screaming at me at the top of his lungs, that I was going to go to jail, that I was the most awful example of a soldier that he had ever seen, that I would never graduate from Basic Training, and that I would be sent back to the dreaded Selective Service and serve out my short remaining life being shot at by the evil enemy, and, to hear his opinion, he would like it if some of the shots found their target.

So much for starting out on the right foot.

Sergeant Salcedo, for that was his name, had a new pet project: me. He found every possible opportunity to remind me how awful I was, what a disappointment to him, my country, my fellow soldiers, to my parents, my community, and my God. None of this bothered me in the least of course, because I had been hearing this kind of stuff most of my life, especially from teachers in high school and college. I just let it roll off my back. I actually enjoyed marching double-time. It was like running cross country, and I could do it easily all day long. The good sergeant didn't seem to get it that his torture was not working on me, and that his screaming and marching was doing more to frustrate him than me. But Sergeant Salcedo was probably not the brightest drill sergeant ever to run recruits through Lackland.

This little test of wills continued for a week or two.

One day, he addressed the men in our barracks and announced that there would be a Great Competition to find the Greatest Among Us All, the soldier who best exemplifies the finest tradition of the Military Spirit of Honor, and is a High Example to His Comrades in Arms. This man would be given special privileges, and a parade in his honor, he would be given a Medal for his achievement, and his parents would be informed of his Achievement, as would his home town newspaper.

Now this Great Competition would be held as follows: From each barracks, three men would be selected. One from the top floor who would be elected from the ranks of the soldiers on that floor, one from the bottom floor, similarly elected, and one overall, appointed by the Sergeant. These three men would compete with others from other barracks, and be judged by a Panel of Military Officers, who would ultimately select The One From Among Us, and he would be Rewarded.

We had 2 days to elect our representatives. Thus followed much discussion among us. My contribution was to remind the others that the greatest wisdom of the Military is to avoid volunteering for anything. This wisdom ruled the day and we informed our torturer, the Great Humiliator, Sergeant Salcedo, that we respectfully declined to elect anyone, we would simply not compete for this this honor, thank you very much.

He was OUTRAGED!!! I guess he just hadn't ever had such a reaction to his brilliant plans. I'm sure he was the laughing stock of his other Drill Sergeant buddies, all of whom had wonderful candidates in the competition. He was certain that it was me who had organized the resistance. He remembered my second day on the job all too well. Needless to say, he drove us even harder, and that just made it all the more fun for me. I enjoy a good challenge! Several days later, in the midst of doing some endurance double time marching, my mind was thinking idle thoughts about what all those other troops were doing to prepare for this competition, how it would be judged, etc. So I asked the good sergeant at a time when he seemed to be in a quiet mood and least likely to shoot me for asking such an impudent question.

The sergeant informed me that the competition was for the American Spirit Honor Medal, awarded to the one soldier in all of this Basic Training, who best exemplifies "High Example to Comrades in Arms", and that the panel of Officers would judge those competing on many topics, including:

Military Bearing. The soldier must demonstrate proficiency with the various Military marching maneuvers, such as The Salute, The About Face, Left/Right Flanking Maneuver, Sitting in Military Way, and so on. That sounded simple enough.

The Uniform Code of Military Justice. This is the detailed Law of the Military. The soldier must demonstrate knowledge of this Code by answering questions posed by the panel of Officers. This is just a bunch of memorizing, and it's only a year since I got out of college, so I should be able to handle a little bit of book work.

Recognition of US and Enemy Aircraft. Since we are an Air Guard unit, being able to recognize our own, and those who would kill us, seems to be a reasonable thing to ask. I'm good with stuff like that, and I like airplanes, so I should be able to do that too.

Overall Considerations. This is some grab bag of undocumented preferences and prejudices, which the selecting Officers would use to weed out the undesirables who managed to do the other work. Here they were looking for someone with the ability to speak intelligently, possesses an agile mind, possibly a sense of humor, some morals, integrity, and as a bonus might be acceptable enough to look at so as to not make the military look stupid for selecting this person. This is the wild card. Anything could happen.

So Sergeant Salcedo and I had a good little talk about all this. It seemed he wanted to get it all off his chest, to be able to talk about it to someone other than his wife and drill sergeant buddies who would only give him more humiliation about his inability to recruit even one man who had the Moxie to compete.

My final question was what I really wanted to know: "How does one do all of the required preparation and study time for this competition, and still perform all that is expected of him during Basic Training? How is it possible?" And then came the answer, the buried gold. If truth be told, he said, the chosen competitors would be exempt from most of the marching, the kitchen duties, the latrine cleaning, and all the wonderful menial stuff. Instead, they would find some quiet place on base that would allow them to focus full time on the serious challenge lay before them. I could barely contain myself, seeing the beauty of this situation, but I pressed for the final answer: "Would your man, if you had one, be allowed to use the Airman's Club to prepare? (The one with the pool table and air-conditioning, and the color TV) Yes, of course, that would be expected, he conceded.

It was at this point that from deep within me a growing Patriotism welled up, and I blurted out: "I'm your man!". Salcedo nearly had an apoplectic fit. He went from brown to pink to purple in less than ten seconds, then blew up in paroxysms of cursing and slander and disgust, and went on like that for several minutes, then started to calm down, and it was soon enough that he realized that it was either me or no one at all, so he gave in.

And so it was that for several weeks of my Basic Training, while the others were grunting and cleaning and running themselves ragged in the rain, and sweating like pigs on the hot drill pad, being humiliated for having an inspection tag still in a pocket, that I was cool and dry inside, shooting pool, throwing darts, and watching TV in the Airman's Club. Of course I had no expectation that I could actually win the competition, so I didn't spend a lot of time doing any work toward that end. But there were moments when I would actually leaf through the fat book of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, looked at a few of the Aircraft recognition silhouettes, and generally threw a few practice salutes around, to nobody in particular.

The moment of Truth finally came, and I was driven to the Place Where We Would Be Tested. One by one we marched into a room, saluted, identified ourself and why we were there ("Sir, Airman McCafferty reporting as ordered, sir."), sat down when directed, and proceeded to be grilled by the panel. At the end, when we were dismissed, we were to do an About Face, then march out of the room.

While I was waiting for my turn, I got to talking with another of the competitors. I learned that he was a missionary in civilian life, of all things! Surely he had God on his side, so I had no chance to win this thing. I was somewhat relieved of the burden of even trying. I loosened up.

When my turn came, I went through the process without any major flaws, as far as I could tell, but at the very end, instead of an About Face, for some still unfathomable reason, I did a Left Face maneuver followed by a weasely wobbly turn toward the door, a maneuver surely never seen before by any military person alive. Some military call these lapses of intelligence or motor coordination a "brain fart". This one of mine surely did not escape notice. But it was over, I was gone, and back to the Airman's Club to enjoy the last of its many wonders, and wait for news of the results.

The hours drifted by in peace and quiet, while my comrades in arms were all doing their duties, such as are expected of all the canon fodder in all the military forces in the world. And then the door bursts open with a huge noise, Salcedo screaming at the top of his lungs "McCafferty, you are going to Jail. I knew you were worthless that second day on the drill pad, and you have proved it again. What the hell did you do in there? How could you screw up so badly? Get your butt outside and in that Jeep. The Officers Panel wants to see you back there Right Now."

He got me to some serious worrying at that point, but the only thing I could remember was missing the About Face. That, and that silly whatever-you-call-it exit maneuver I invented. Could I really go to jail for that? Maybe they knew about my wasting time in the Airman's Club. Could I really get bounced out of Basic Training and get sent to the Army where I'd get shot at? These are not happy thoughts, and they fully occupied my mind on the short drive over to the Officers Meeting Room. Salcedo escorted me directly to the door, gave one loud knock, heard the voice within command "Come!" and pushed me inside, closing the door behind me, him safely on the other side. This could only be bad.

It is always darkest before the dawn, it is said. And it sure seemed dark at that moment. But something was out of place. All the officers were smiling. Not that evil Salcedo smile, but a loving, benevolent smile. "Congratulations, Airman, you won!"

There is a God, it is true. I learned that He has a great sense of humor, but He is not particularly impressed with all of his missionaries.

Within hours, the word filtered throughout the base, and back to my barracks, and to all those buddies I talked into Not Volunteering, and I guess they were having trouble figuring it out. I know I sure was. What we have working here are two different philosophies. One says "Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained", and another says "Don't Volunteer for Anything in the Military." It could have gone either way.

My barracks buddies were generally pleased that one of their own had won the prize, because we were all given special privileges that day, drops of kindness and celebration from the soft heart of Sergeant Salcedo. The next day they were singing a different tune, for they were massed together with everyone else on base, to march in a huge parade in (wait for it) MY HONOR! When this huge body of men was assembled, and I among them, a Color Guard (bearers of the flags of the US, the Air Force, and of Texas) came toward us from the direction of the Review Stand where the Officers and Dignitaries were waiting to honor me. This Color Guard then stopped in the center of the many columns of troops, and wheeled around to face the Review Stand, and waited.

It was at this point that I was supposed to do a Left Flank maneuver from my position at the corner of the middle group, and march to just behind the Color Guard, then march forward to the Review Stand, where they would deliver me with much pomp and circumstance, to the music of the Air Force Marching Band, to our most fearsome leader, Colonel George S. Arbuthnot, the god-made-man, the absolute ruler of Lackland Air Force Base, whereupon he would bestow upon me the American Spirit Honor Medal, an award of the Citizens Committee of the Army, Navy and Air Force, for High Example to Comrades in Arms.

However it didn't go exactly as planned. I was probably swooning with the sheer delight of all this majesty (all for me, aren't I wonderful) so I wasn't really paying attention when the Color Guard must have counted off their wait-time, and started back to the Review Stand, without me!

Yikes! At this moment, I executed some very fast maneuvers, and broke ranks, flanked left, and hurry-up marched to catch up to them, just as they arrived in front of the Colonel. The Commander must have been having a good day, unlike Salcedo and the thousands of others who were sweating and performing like so many toy soldiers, just so that I could receive some award, a truly preposterous situation. The Colonel looked kindly at me and said "I thought we weren't going to have a guest of honor for our parade. You almost missed the Color Guard!" I must have mumbled something, I don't know what. The years have clouded my memory of some details. He handed me some papers, and the medal, and shook my hand and we took our place in the Review Stand. There we were, the Colonel and me, standing side by side as the masses marched past us, in my honor, and at his command.

At one point, the exaltedness of it all overcame me. I remember the jet planes flying in formation overhead, an added exclamation point to the glory that was mine. What came next I must have seen happen once before, it was probably on TV, maybe even in the Airman's Club. I, in fact, and I swear it is true, gave a light elbow to the ribs of the Colonel, and when he looked at me with a face of disbelief that such a scum as me would dare touch a god, I simply said: "You've got some fine-looking soldiers here, Colonel. You should be proud of them." As if I might be some Four Star General, throwing him a bone of a compliment. I thought at the moment that it was a delightfully capricious thing to do, and showed great humor and good morale. He surely did not agree, judging from the look on his face. He never spoke to me again. But he never retaliated either. I had achieved some degree of parity, and a truce.

The rest of Basic Training was a breeze. I really enjoyed the Obstacle Course. The food was great. I earned an award for marksmanship with a rifle. I got into the best shape of my life, and I returned home with good memories and a few good stories, and this is one of them.

Back at my home base in Martinsburg, WV, I was given various computer related jobs to do, including responsibility for the inoculation records. These records consisted of a deck of IBM punched cards, one for every soldier on the base. In each card a column was punched with the date of the soldier's most recent inoculation for the various god-awful diseases one could get if you weren't careful, and just happened to be in a Malaria area, or got Smallpox, whatever.

Now you might think, as I originally did, that this sort of record keeping was a lowly chore, but it is said that The Job Makes The Man, and I ascended into greatness with this bit of administrivia. I let it be known, far and wide throughout the base, that I was The One who controlled these records, that I Alone, with the simple change of a few holes in a punched card, could mandate that some poor soul would, or would not, have his arm perforated and bloodied, and probably suffer days of adverse reactions to a needless inoculation. Such great power should not be wielded unjudiciously, and I want to assure you that any wielding I did had the utmost of judiciousness.

And so, in the Fullness of Time, my 6 years of military service did end, having fully done my Duty to My Country, and I was Honorably Discharged, with the rank of Sergeant, and put back in Society, no longer a soldier for the government, just like everyone else. There are many of us Out There, most seem normal, and we walk among you every day.

Just ask any of them: "What did you do in the War?" And be prepared for the most fantastic stories!

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