On a cold, wet morning in early May of 2008, I climbed into the back of a canvas-covered 2 ½ ton M35A2 “Deuce and a Half” truck for the bumpy ten-mile ride to Urban Combat training. I was carrying an M16 rifle. We were beginning combat training to get ready for deployment to Iraq in January of 2009. I re-enlisted in 2007 after leaving the Army in 1984. I had been a civilian for 23 years and now I was back. Up to this point my service had been one weekend a month. But climbing into that out-moded truck that would soon be retired even from National Guard use, I had a moment of doubt whether I really belonged with these guys less than half my age and a moment of déjà vu.
Thirty-six years ago, in February of 1972, I was 18 years old in basic training. I climbed into the back of a Deuce and a Half truck. They big three-axle trucks were new to the military then, as was the M16 rifle I carried at the time. We all knew we could end up in Viet Nam, although the war was ending. Riding out to the range made the war more real.
And 36 years later, bouncing and lurching on rutted roads toward the range I wondered if I was really ready for deployment to Iraq. I never left the United States during the Viet Nam War, but in one of those ironies that make the best war stories so good, I was the only one of the five guys I enlisted with to come home in bandages. They served in Viet Nam and came home just fine. I was on a live-fire missile test crew in the desert in Utah. On November 9, 1973, some detonators went off and I was blinded in the explosion. I had my sight back in a month after six operations to remove wire and small fragments from my eyes. I retained as a tank crewman after that and served another nine years, mostly as a tank commander on active duty and in the reserves.
In 1984 I left the Army because I wanted to work as a writer and, although the reserves is billed as one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer, the leaders spend a lot more time than that. So I left the Army.
When America was attacked in 2001, I thought about re-enlisting, but I was too old. At that time the maximum enlistment age was thirty-five. Eleven years prior service meant I could enlist until age 46, but I was 48 when the terrorists attacked. In addition, the baby we adopted the year before was not quite two years old.
Five years later, in 2006, congress raised the maximum enlistment age to 42 for the Army. It took a few months for me to find a recruiter willing to go through the waivers and hassles necessary to get a guy my age back in the Army, but Sergeant 1st Class Kevin Askew was sure he could get me back in.
The déjà vu comes and goes. In a very digital world, the Army still runs on dog-eared file folders of papers and uses more clerks to shuffle paper in a 2000-soldier brigade than a civilian company with ten times that many employees. Most of the men I served with in the 70s (there were no women in combat units back then) were from inner city or rural backgrounds. Most of the men and women who enlist now are the same. They want a job, they want the benefits for their young families, they do not have the money for higher education and want to go to college or technical school.
Inside the fences that surround most bases, the Army is very much the same as the 1970s. But the first time stopped on the way home from a weekend drill to get coffee at Starbucks, I knew perception of the Army had changed completely. In the 70s we did not wear uniforms off base if we could avoid it. Now people thank me for my service almost anyplace I go. I came home from Iraq through Fort Dix, New Jersey. I took an Amtrak train home to Lancaster. Several people I never met thanked me for my service between Trenton, New Jersey, and home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. A few of the guys I served with in Iraq had enlisted back in the 1970s. They remembered very well what it was like to be a soldier back then. Sometimes when a stranger thanks me for my service, I wish some of the men I served with in the 1970s could spend a day in the uniform now and get some of the gratitude that they missed back then.