I enlisted in the Army on June 17, 1968 - I've detailed the circumstances of my enlistment in an earlier post so let me just say here that my principal motive was to secure a job (Military Occupational Specialty, or MOS, in Army-speak) that would keep me, if not out of Vietnam, at least out of a direct combat role there. I wasn't sure what to expect upon arriving at Ft. Dix, New Jersey for my basic training, but the reality of what I encountered was totally beyond anything in my experience.
My training brigade was made up entirely of new recruits who came from one of two groups: about half were men like myself, recent college graduates whose draft deferments were up and who enlisted to get a non-combat job (draftees only had to serve two years compared to our three year enlistment period, but they were pretty much guaranteed to serve at least one of those years in combat). We were all from the Northeast and we were all white. The other half were all Louisiana National Guard recruits who had signed up for the same reason - to avoid going to Vietnam (National Guard units didn't "deploy" to foreign wars backs then, unlike units today that often face multiple deployments of a year or more). None of them were college graduates, and none of them were white. We came from wildly different backgrounds but we had a common purpose, which was to avoid combat if possible.
Everybody refers to the Army's initial eight week training session that all new recruits attend as "Basic Training", but it's formal name is longer. It's full nomenclature is "Basic Combat Infantry Training", so the irony of the situation was that the Drill Sergeants, who didn't care where we were from or what color we were, had one job to do, and that was to prepare us for a role that each and every one of us was trying to avoid. Their job was to make combat infantrymen, "grunts", out of us ("I am the Infantry! FOLLOW ME!"). The Army expects everybody to know how to fight, whether it's their primary occupation or not. We, all of us, black, white, college grad or Louisiana farm worker, had a common goal: get through it and move on with our lives.
And so it was that I spent eight weeks with the most diverse group of men that I had ever encountered up until that time in my young life. All in all I would have to say that it was a good experience, perhaps a turning point in my understanding of the racial and cultural diversity which our nation comprises. And despite our differences we managed to get along just fine, perhaps aided by our shared purpose of avoiding becoming what the Army was training us to be. I won't tell you that I made any life-long friends during the experience, because I didn't, but I didn't form any life-long prejudices either. And more importantly it gave me some much needed experience by which I could judge bigoted remarks in the future - something that until then I had been sorely lacking.
So it was that my "Basic Training" was about more than just how to be a combat infantryman. It was about life, and about being a citizen in our great nation. It's something that every young person should experience, not "Basic Combat Infantry Training" necessarily, but something like it to bring them together from different backgrounds and cultures to learn a common lesson: how to get along to become better citizens. How can we make this possible?