J. D. Pendry
On Thanksgiving Day 1971, I was a 19-year-old Private in basic combat training at Fort Ord, California. My military career did not have a grand beginning. For that matter it never had a grand middle or end either, but that’s a story for another day.
In September of that year, just before my 19th birthday, I stepped down from a Greyhound bus onto Fort Ord’s sand and ice plant. It wasn’t the type of greeting that folklore and movies primed me to expect. A Corporal wearing heavily starched cotton fatigues, spit shined boots and a glossy black helmet with large white Corporal stripes painted on the front greeted the few of us arriving from San Francisco Airport. He wasn’t loud and ornery as we expected, but he did walk so fast that most of my small group had to jog to keep up. His first stop with us was an Army Mess Hall where we ate our first Army meal of warm soup and cold sandwiches. A week later, all hell broke loose for us when the cattle car we were crammed into stopped in front of our basic training company.
The first two weeks were tough physically and mentally. All of our Drill Sergeants were recent Vietnam combat veterans who stood as constant reminders of our likely destiny. Unfortunately for me, my second week of training ended with an admission to the surgical ward of Fort Ord’s hospital with a serious case of blood poisoning that grew from an infected blister on my toe. The ward had two long rows of beds. There was one on each side of the long bay. I don’t know the number, but my mental image tells me there were about fifty beds, maybe some less. Combat medical evacuees from Vietnam occupied most of the beds. Young men, most of them my age, missing limbs and with assorted combat wounds were my first shot in the face of a soldier’s reality. It probably wasn’t a good place to make a pitch for a military career to a Private still in basic training. Following my hospital stay, the doctors decided that my foot would not stand up to training for awhile longer so they sent me home for two weeks of convalescent leave. Following leave, I reported to the hospital and the same surgical ward. Many of the residents were the same, but there were some new ones. I spent one more day at the hospital before receiving medical clearance to return to my unit and training.
I missed almost a month of training. Since it was too much to make up, I was placed in another unit that was just beginning its second week. In Army basic training (at least in 1971) one did not want to have the “Recycle” label. Recycle is what happens to those who fail their first attempt at training and have to start over, or in those days it may have been a recycle for disciplinary reasons. Drill Sergeant Shepp shared my personal space for sometime to ascertain why I was a “retread”. Once he was satisfied that I wasn’t a bonehead or someone’s failed attempt at producing a soldier, he put me in the platoon and issued instructions to my trainee leader to get me squared away.
Thanksgiving in the trainee mess hall was quite formal in 1971. The trainees wore their Class A uniform, mostly adorned only with nametags and US collar brass. The Drill Sergeants wore Class A’s as well. All wore combat decorations. One of them, Drill Sergeant Favor, I recall wore a Silver Star. Most wore blue Infantry ropes and Combat Infantryman Badges. The Senior Drill Sergeant, First Sergeant and Company Commander wore the Army Blue Uniform. The Mess Hall was decked out with tablecloths and other seasonal decorations. The normal commotion of get in, get fed and get out wasn’t there. The cooks were unusually pleasant and the Drill Sergeants weren’t yelling or kicking anything over. The meal was traditional and quite good. It wasn’t our usual basic training dining experience. Some soldiers, who were local to the area, had family guests. It was quite a scene for my first Thanksgiving meal in the Army, and my first away from home. It definitely stood in stark contrast to the hospital ward.
Over the years, I continued to have Thanksgiving in the Mess Hall, even after I was married and had my primary family to care for. As a First Sergeant, I’d help serve the meal to the soldiers and their families. Inevitably, I’d end up with potatoes or something else on my dress blue uniform and predictably my cheeks would turn red as my wife tried to clean me up with a napkin in front of the soldiers.
The young men and women that comprise our Armed Forces this Thanksgiving are incredible young people. One who chooses voluntarily to place him or herself in the line of danger for the rest of us is an extraordinarily special person. If you were to visit Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC or Landstuhl Region Medical Center in Germany on this Thanksgiving, you’d see many who made that choice.
At home on Thanksgiving, members of my family and I will circle the dinner table and join hands. We’ll offer thanks for all that we have. We will also give heartfelt thanks for those men and women who stand in harms way on our behalf, for those who fill the hospital wards and for those, because of their selfless service, who’ve seen their last earthly Thanksgiving. We’ll ask for a special blessing for all of our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, Coastguardsmen and their families.
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J.D. Pendry is author of The Three Meter Zone, Random House/Ballantine.
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