Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Army Made Me a Writer, Then a Professional Writer


The Army made me a writer.  Last year I wrote here about how six versions of letters home taught me to write and rewrite and helped to make me writer.

By the end of 1977 with 14 months in Germany, I had become a writer, but not a professional writer.  Then the Army gave me that too.  Specifically, Command Sergeant Major Cubbins gave me the chance to become a professional writer.

Cubbins was one of those Top Sergeants for whom his part of the United States Army was HIS Army.  The 4th Brigade, 4th Infantry Division went to Wiesbaden, West Germany, en masse in October 1976 as Brigade '76.  Cubbins took over as Brigade Sgt. Major in the fall of 1977.

Cubbins was a tall, rail thin, leathery-skinned, wrinkled veteran of both the Korean and Vietnam Wars.  He was over 50 years old which we 20-year-olds thought just amazing.  He had 33 years of enlisted service when he came to our unit--11 service stripes on the left sleeve of his dress uniform and a half-dozen combat stripes on the right.

At the time Cubbins joined the Brigade, we were doing regular 4-mile runs on the airstrip at Wiesbaden.  These were brigade runs with dozens of company formations running in a long procession.  As soon as he took over the brigade, Cubbins started leading those runs.  We were amazed.  In the 70s, men in their 50s did not exercise.  But here was this old guy running in front, calling cadence too.  The world was very different then.

It was Cubbins' Army.  So just before Christmas he gathered all of the sergeants in the Brigade for an NCO meeting in the Weisbaden Air Base Theater.  I don't remember most of the meeting, but I do remember one subject he covered.  Cubbins said 4th Brigade was being ignored by The Stars and Stripes, but Armed Forces Radio, even by the Wiesbaden Post.  He wanted a combat arms sergeant to volunteer to work to get 4th Brigade in the local and regional news.

He wanted a "real soldier" who could write about training.  He did not want a "goddamned sissy journalist who could not tell a muzzle brake from a parking brake."

I noticed that Cubbins wrote with a blue pen on a yellow pad.  As soon as that meeting ended, I went to the PX and got a new blue pen.  I already had a yellow pad.  And I walked out onto the airstrip to look for something to write about.

There on the edge of the airstrip were a dozen German soldiers and as many American soldiers planning to have a partnership event that weekend.  I had my story.  Before lunch was over, the story was on the sergeant major's desk along with a biography noting that I loved to write and that I fired Distinguished as a tank commander my first time out the previous year.

I found out later Cubbins liked that I had something written the same day.  The other entries came in a few days later.  I got the job.  I was a paid journalist from then until I left the Army nearly two years later.