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Page 37
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<< 36. Back From Nam (poem)38. Jimmy Mack >>

How I Nearly Won the War

By Marc Levy

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Christmas 1970: a hot meal in a muddy fox hole,a Red Cross gift of WD 40. Excellent for cleaning my M16. Thank you, Jesus.

Twelve months later, three on a remote fire base burning human shit, it was time to head home.

At Bien Hoi Airport I met other GIs leaving Vietnam, some with combat ribbons, the "thousand yard" stare. Unlike the young men who flirted with stewardesses, fell asleep, then suddenly woke in Vietnam, our return flight was eerily quiet. But the moment we landed at Oakland Air Force Base everyone cheered. At the airport I bought a plane ticket to Jersey, boarded, and sat near a good looking stewardess. She winked and giggled but I did not reply. The cab ride home cost six dollars.

"This is my son," my old man would say to friends and strangers. "He was in Vietnam. He was a medic."

But my father, my brother, my friends, never asked what I did in war, what war did to me. They never asked.

A month later, in the dead of winter, I reported to Fort Devens.

"Sorry," I said to First Sergeant Balmer, an intensely vigorous man. "I don't pull guard duty."

"You what?" he asked, stupefied.

"Nothing personal, Sarge. I just can't do it."

A year at war can change a man. And stateside Army discipline may enrage him.

"You got thirty minutes," the First Sergeant scowled as he stormed out the barrack. "You best have your shit together!" He really said that. "Best have your shit together."

I packed an AWOL bag, put on jeans, sneakers, a sweatshirt, my army field jacket, and lay back in my bunk.

"What the...where the hell do you think you're going?" the First Sergeant asked as I got up.

"AWOL, Sarge. I don't pull guard duty. Remember?"

"Are you out of your mind? You can't do that!"

"I'm going to Boston, Sarge. See you in three days."

I walked out the barrack, caught a bus, two hours later had a ten dollar hotel room, went to a porn theater, jerked off, ate good, slept good, explored the town. The trip back to Devens so uneventful.

"Greetings," I said to the company clerk, who glanced up from his typewriter.

"Greetings yourself," he said. "Balmer gave you an Article 15."

But non judicial punishment meant nothing to this GI. For the next six months I refused guard duty, KP, haircuts, did not salute officers. Deliberately failed a driving test.

"Stop sign! Stop sign! Step on the brakes!" a lieutenant wailed.

I stepped on the gas.

"Green means go! GO, you moron!"

I stepped on the brakes.

Over time I racked up five Article 15s and a Summary Court Martial. Captain John Carlen assigned me to Sgt. Green, an ornery muscular man who'd done three tours in Vietnam, won three Silver Stars. His orders were to make me miserable.

"Get back to work or I'll give you a knuckle sandwich," he barked one fine summer day.

Calmly, I strode past the big man, left the sweltering warehouse, walked to the middle of a small field, sat down cross-legged and began singing "The Answer is Blowing In The Wind."

Sgt. Green called First Sergeant Balmer, who called Captain Carlen, who called Major Odell.

"Now what?" asked the Captain, who swept both hands through his thinning hair.

"Sir, I don't eat knuckle sandwiches," I said, and calmly stretched my legs.

Captain Carlen sank his face into his palms.

Major Odell, a stocky middle-aged Texan, leaned over me. "Son," he said," Let's you and me get down to business. You talk, you talk, I swear to God I'll listen to every goddamn word you say."

"Sir, Private Levy reporting, Sir." I nearly stood and saluted. "Major, I can't follow orders. I just can't. I want out of the Army."

The Major was not pleased.

"Now you listen to me, Private. I'm in charge here. Not you. And our Father in Heaven made soldiers like you to obey my orders! If you can't do that...if you can't..." The Major shook his head and raised one hand skyward. "I will have no choice...no choice but to court martial your fucking ass!"

He really said that. "Your fucking ass!"

Thank you, Jesus, for the Common Sense Book Store, a GI coffee house located in a small town where an English professor taught off duty soldiers the art of writing anti-war poetry. In time, we formed the anti-war Radio Free Devens (broadcast by WAAF in Worcester, MA), spoke to reporters, one night shook hands with Dan Ellsburg on Eye Witness News.

"Was that your ugly face I saw on TV?" asked Staff Sergeant Judson, a barrel-chested black man who'd fought his way up the Army's lily white ranks. Framed certificates and awards blanketed the wall behind his desk.

I nodded sheepishly. "Yes, Staff Sergeant."

He looked at me with the kindness of one who has survived much cruelty and will never bestow it.

"You're a crazy one, Levy. Someone's gonna write a book about you. Make you famous. I mean that. Now get out of my office!"

Restricted to base by Captain Carlen, I filed for Conscientious Objector status. Denied, I wrote to my congressman: "Help! I need to get out of the Army!" When he did not reply, I began the long trek up the Fort Devens chain-of-command. Two months later I reached the top.

"Sir, Private Levy reporting to see General Irwin," I said to a trim lieutenant seated behind an immaculate gray desk.

By now my hair was shoulder length and my garrison cap kept slipping off my head.

Lieutenant Shaw reluctantly called the General. After a brief exchange he slammed down the phone. "The General can't see you today,"he snarled.

"But sir, I have an appointment. I'm Private Levy. I'm here to get out of the Army."

Lieutenant Shaw stood and pounded the desk with his fist. "I don't think you get it, bud. The General will not see you. Now get the fuck out!"

He really said that. "Now get the fuck out!"

Three weeks later an officer approached me as I stood in the morning chow line.

"Sign here," he said, pointing to a large X beneath a dozen paragraphs. "We'll give you a Bad Conduct Discharge. You'll be out in a week! Isn't that what you want?"

A Bad Conduct Discharge, a BCD in Army parlance, is a very bad thing to possess. It identifies the bearer as a person without pride, without honor, a pariah incapable of serving his country. It disqualifies the recipient from most state and federal benefits. It is a bright red flag to potential employers. It condemns one to a life of civilian hell.

"No thank you, sir. I'll take my chances at the Special court-martial."

The officer was stunned. I was hungry. Drifting from the chow hall, the scent of burnt toast and runny eggs beckoned me onward.

A month later a tall one-eyed colonel threw me out of JAG.

"Sir, you can't do that. Major Odell has me up for a Special court-martial. I'm here to see my Army lawyer."

A much decorated WW II vet, Colonel Raymond Ritter wore a jaunty black patch over his right eye. "You're a fucking disgrace to the Army!" he said, and grabbed my shoulders and hustled me out. "A fucking disgrace."

Undeterred, I walked a mile to the IG's office. A swarthy heavy set man, he leaned back in his large oak chair and propped both legs on his desk.

"What can I do for you, soldier?" asked Inspector General Schmidt.

"Sir, Colonel Ritter just threw me out of JAG."

I told him my story while standing at attention in my dress uniform. Atop my head, an Army baseball cap to which I'd painted an officer's rank and gold trim.

The IG looked me over, lit a cigar, and took a long thoughtful drag. "I'll look into it," he said, exhaling a noxious plume.

I believed him. "Thank you, Sir. Thank you!"

At company Head Quarters, Captain Carlen screamed, "The IG just chewed my ass out! Did you complain about Colonel Ritter? Did you do that?"

"Sir, you don't understand. I'm Private Levy. I have a right to legal counsel."

The captain did not curtail his anger.

"Get the fuck out of my sight!" he yelled at the top of his lungs. "You hear me! Get the fuck out!"

My Book Store friends had contacted Ed Randall, a noted civilian lawyer. Ed agreed to take my case. Hearing the good news, I went AWOL to Jersey. One night the phone rang. My old man picked it up. "It's for you," he said politely.


"Doc, it's Ed. Why'd you leave?"

"It's my birthday, Ed. I'm twenty-one."

"Look, Army brass want to give you a Dishonorable Discharge and three months hard labor. I pulled some strings. Plead guilty, you'll get a General Discharge, do five days in jail."

I looked at my dog. My dog looked at me.

"I don't know, Ed. What do you think?"

"If I were you, Doc, I'd take it."

"OK, Ed. See you soon."

We met in an empty JAG office, where I noticed two stacks of paper on a long metal desk. One pile had copies of my case. The other concerned a General court martial, the highest court under the Uniform Military Code of Justice. I read the top page. The charge was statutory rape. The accused was Sergeant Green.

After two hours in a small courtroom five officers pronounced the sentence Ed had predicted. Before two imposing MPs lead me away, the court secretary, a pretty brunette, slipped me a tab of speed.

In the stockade barbershop, one of the MPs said, "Boy, you gonna co-operate or we gonna hold you down?"

The two of them weighed half a ton. "I'll co-operate," I said.

My baseball cap was suddenly knocked off my head. The prison barber cut my hair to the bone. A photographer snapped my picture with a Polaroid camera. When he wasn't looking I pocketed the photo. I gave the speed to a combat vet who'd slugged an officer, knocking him out.

Five days later I was freed from jail. In the rush to justice Ed forgot to mention I'd lose all rank and a months pay. Nearly broke, I packed my Army duffel bag, said good-bye to Devens, and started hitching to Boston. About noon a red Chevy convertible pulled up. A familiar face leaned out the driver side window.

"Need a lift?" asked the court secretary.

The next morning, after one last fondle and a fond farewell, I began the long trip home.

Marc Levy was a medic with Delta 1-7 Cav in 1970. His war poetry and prose have been widely published online and in print. His website is Medic in the Green Time.

<< 36. Back From Nam (poem)38. Jimmy Mack >>