In 1969, one week after turning 17 and two years after dropping out of high school, I went to the Army recruiting office at a shopping center near my home in Suitland, Maryland. Two weeks later I was riding a bus with other new recruits on the way to Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
The bus arrived at the reception center at 4AM and a drill sergeant came on board and screamed at us to “Get off the bus, now!” “Line up on the marks” “No talking”
I was terrified, and immediately began to question my decision to join the Army but it was too late for that, because I had already signed the papers and taken the oath. They fed us and put us to bed for a couple of hours. Later that day, we got buzz cuts and our new uniforms. After a week in the reception area, we were assigned to platoons for basic training.
Our days began at 4:30 AM, with the drill sergeant yelling at the top of his lungs for us to get out of bed. I had a hard time adjusting to waking up that early, especially since I was usually exhausted by the training. After I didn’t jump out of my rack immediately a couple of times, the drill sergeant assigned my squad leader the job of insuring that I got up promptly. I slept on the upper bunk and he the lower one, and every morning when the lights went on, he would push up on my mattress from below with his feet and I would go flying out of the top bunk and land on the floor.
Because I joined in late October, we were given leave time to go home for Christmas.
While visiting family, I was playing around sliding on some ice when I fell and heard a crunch in my shoulder. I had cracked my collarbone.
After I got back to Ft Bragg and resumed Basic training I realized that my shoulder was still messed-up and I was unable to do things like push-ups without a lot of pain. I told the drill sergeant that I had hurt my shoulder while on leave and couldn’t do the exercises, but he wasn’t buying it. He told me to go on sick call and I had better come back from the doctor’s office with a note for light duty or I’d be in trouble for lying to him.
Well, the doctor determined that I had indeed cracked a bone but he only gave me a note for one day of light duty. One day! When I showed the note to the drill sergeant, he just smiled at me and said, “Enjoy your one day off. I’ll see you tomorrow.” The next day he showed me no mercy and I just had to tough it out till my shoulder healed.
For obvious reasons, the Army is very careful when training recruits to shoot rifles. “Firing Range Discipline” means listening very carefully to instructions; like always keep your weapon pointed downrange, don’t load ammo until ordered to do so, etc. One day at the firing range, I was all the way on the end of the line; the farthest away from the drill sergeant and couldn’t hear the instructions clearly. So I followed what the guy next to me was doing when he did it. He loaded his weapon, so I loaded my weapon.
The next thing I knew the drill sergeant was screaming at us. He had not said to load weapons, but the idiot I was watching had loaded his rifle and I did the same. Our punishment consisted of running around with our rifles held over our heads till we collapsed from exhaustion. I was physically and emotionally exhausted already by the rigors of basic training and had tears in my eyes while I was running around. Of course the drill sergeant noticed and pointed it out to the entire platoon with a heavy dose of ridicule.
After graduating from Basic and being promoted from Buck Private (E-1) to Private (E-2). I was sent to Fort Knox, Kentucky for “Advanced Individual Training” which in my case was Field Radio Mechanic school. The training was very good and even though I was a high school dropout, I did well. 95% of the graduates were promoted to Private First Class (E-3) upon graduation and the top 5% were promoted to SP/4 (E-4). I was one of those new SP/4s.
In less than six months I had gone from E-1 to E-4. However, I was still just 17 years old and had only completed 9th grade. I was too young to go to Vietnam at that point because they weren’t sending 17 year olds at that time, so I was sent to Germany instead. I was stationed about 30 miles Southeast of Frankfurt in a little town called Budingen. The town center was surrounded by a castle built in the 1200s and our Army base was just outside the town limits.
Because I had done so well in radio school, I was assigned to the Headquarters Company (they called them Troops, because it was a Calvary unit) instead of a line unit in the 3rd Squadron, 12 Calvary, within the 3rd Armored Division. Our unit was completely mobile; with helicopters, tanks, tracked vehicles, self-propelled artillery, and lots of trucks and jeeps. Everyone was assigned to a vehicle; either as driver or a passenger.
Not long after I arrived, I was assigned a jeep. Though I had driven a car a couple of times, I had never gotten a driver’s license because I never owned a car. No one seemed to mind when I mentioned that, so I taught myself how to drive the jeep by practicing in the motor pool area. The jeep was in terrible condition and I was supposed to be fixing it up. I was allowed to drive around the post trying to get parts and repairs done.
One day when I was joy riding around the post, I was stopped by a friend who asked me to give him a ride to the airfield, where the helicopters were kept. In order to get there one had to leave the post and drive one mile. I was not supposed to leave the post without permission, but I didn’t think that meant I couldn’t drop someone off at the airfield, so I said OK and took him there. On the way to the airfield it started raining a little.
I had very little experience driving, and no experience driving in bad weather. On the way back, the cobblestone streets were wet and slippery and I was going too fast. Disaster ensued. As I went around a bend in the road, the jeep lost traction and started sliding. I overcorrected one way and then the other, and then slammed head on into a brick wall. The jeep was totaled and so was my nose from hitting the steering wheel.
In a few moments, the Army arrived to assess the damage and recover the jeep. My commanding officer (CO) also showed up and ordered me to go to the First Sergeant’s office and wait there for him.
The CO arrived and called the First Sergeant into his office while I waited. After a half-hour or so they called me in and presented me with an “Article 15” which is non-judicial punishment administered for mostly minor infractions. I was demoted to Private First Class, restricted to post for 2 months and my pay was docked. I was also supposed to pay for the jeep, but for some reason that never happened.
Next, I was assigned a tracked vehicle called an M577. It was a “command” version of the M113 Armored Personnel Carrier, that was taller and carried teletype equipment, radios and cryptography gear. I did such a good job of taking care of my vehicle and doing my everyday job as a radio repairman that I was eventually promoted again to SP/4. Later I was assigned to the job of Battalion Crypto Clerk, which was a wonderful gift given to me by the Communications Officer, who thought very highly of me despite my youth and uneven service to that point.
The Battalion Crypto Clerk’s job was truly a dream come true. I had the third floor of the Headquarters building all to myself and no one was allowed in my area except for the Communications Officer and a couple of other senior officers. The job required a Secret security clearance and I carried a 45 cal pistol in a shoulder holster at all times.
I was responsible for maintaining “Signal Operating Instructions” (SOI) booklets which contained frequencies and call signs to be used in case of deployment. I was also supposed to be the crypto operator and was sent to school to learn how to operate and maintain crypto machines, which were used to scramble and unscramble teletype messages sent via radio.
Normally, the job only required about two days of actual work each month, to duplicate the SOIs and put together the books in case I needed to hand them out for deployment or an “alert” which were unannounced training exercises. I was supposed to fire up the teletype and crypto machines once a month and communicate with headquarters in Frankfurt, but the equipment never worked properly the whole time I was there.
We would have had no way to communicate securely with headquarters if the Russians had ever crossed the border of West Germany, but no one at HQ ever seemed to care.
At this point, I got orders to go to Vietnam. I was supposed to go home for a two week vacation and then report to Fort Ord, California for shipment overseas. I was initially scared, but I eventually got used to the idea and figured I’d probably be OK as long as I was stationed in some base camp fixing radios rather than going out on patrol. I lucked out when my orders were cancelled just two weeks before I was supposed to leave Germany. I never did figure out why.
After a few months working in the crypto room, the CO decided it would be better if I lived on the third floor of the Headquarters building right outside my office. This was another great development because I didn’t have to live in the barracks any more and I didn’t have to show up for required formations, mornings and afternoons. The First Sergeant used the formations to inspect uniforms and haircuts, so I was able to avoid that for several months.
I let my hair grow out and stuffed it up under my hat any time I had to go outside my restricted area. But one day I had to get a paper signed by the Executive Officer (XO) and while I was in his office he pulled my hat off, and flipped-out. I was obviously a subversive with that long hair and he fired me from my job as crypto clerk. I had to move back into the barracks and was faced with returning to the motor pool as a radio mechanic unless I could work something out. I knew most of the other officers in HQ and talked to the intelligence officer to see if he had a job opening I could take. He offered me a job as a file clerk, but that only lasted about two weeks before the XO found out and demanded that I return to the motor pool and work as a radio mechanic.
Most of my days were spent wasting time and smoking hash with my buddies in the motor pool. Sometimes we would get in a track and close all the hatches, and then smoke bowl after bowl of hash. We were wasted all day, every day, and every night. We stole C-ration boxes off of the vehicles and kept them in the barracks for late-night snacks. We went into the little town of Budingen a couple of nights a week to hang out at the bars and try to hit on the few girls who were available.
On weekends we would go to Frankfurt and hit the bars there looking for women. Occasionally, before heading home we'd go to a huge whorehouse called Crazy Sexys where we could get a quickie for $15.
During this period, I met a really nice girl who was visiting Budingen and started a mostly long-distance relationship with her. She lived in Northern Germany but we corresponded regularly and spent time together whenever we could. See: “Ingrid, the Best Christmas Present.”
I settled down for a while and got my high school diploma and went to the gym in the evenings. But I lived in a room with four other guys and over time we became the main hash dealers for the entire post. We would go to Frankfurt once a week and pick up one or two kilos of hash. We took it back to our room, divided it up, and were open for business 24/7. We got away with it because no one in authority seemed to care what went on in the barracks and no one ever conducted a surprise inspection the whole time I was there.
Command’s disinterest wasn’t just confined to personnel matters. The boilers broke down in our barracks building and we went without hot water for an entire year! We were showering with cold water in the middle of winter and there was very little heat in the shower room as well.
The crypto clerk who replaced me got very ill and for a short time I was assigned to take his place. While this was going on, our unit was sent to a training area near the Czech border while I and a few other support personnel stayed behind in Budingen. When the time came to update the SOIs, I flew by helicopter to the training area and handed them out. I wasn’t supposed to return to Budingen for a couple of days and was hanging out with my buddies when I decided to take an M577 for a joy ride.
It wasn’t the first time I had taken a vehicle, including tracks, for a joy ride but it was the last. A friend and I went to the makeshift motor pool in the training area and took one of the 577’s for a ride in the woods. Some time later I was driving down a dirt road very fast when a deer bounded across the road and into the woods to my left. I immediately turned left as well to try and chase down the deer. We were plowing through everything in our path and loving it!
Then the deer went over an embankment and I followed right behind. Unfortunately it led to a creek bed and the slopes on both sides were very steep. So steep, that the 577 was wedged between the V-shaped slopes and the tracks weren’t making good contact with the ground. We were stuck! The tracks would spin but we weren’t going anywhere. We got out some shovels and tried to dig the track out but it was hopeless.
There was only one thing to do if we wanted to avoid trouble. We walked all the way back to the company area, got another friend to agree to help us, went to the motor pool and got another 577, and drove it back to where the other one was stuck. The new driver had been to Vietnam and really knew how to handle these vehicles. First, he knocked down a bunch of trees to make room to maneuver and then hooked up a tow cable and pulled the stuck 577 out of the creek bed.
We were so happy that we started racing the 577s on the way back to the motor pool. I was driving one while the Vietnam vet was driving the other. Suddenly the engine blew on the other 577. One of the pistons actually went through the drivers cab and almost hit the guy! Now we were truly screwed.
We hooked up the tow cable and towed the 577 into the motor pool area. It was getting dark and the area was almost deserted. No one was paying any attention to us as we spent several minutes positioning the 577s in line with the others so it would look like nothing was wrong, even though my 577 had a ring of mud around it from being stuck in the creek bed. Then we went back to the temporary barracks and acted as if nothing had happened.
The next morning, the two guys who were involved in the previous evening’s activities asked me if I had any clean uniform shirts and I loaned them both a clean shirt — both of which had my name tags on them. A couple of minutes later, a sergeant showed up and told us three to report to the First Sergeant. We knew what that meant.
We were standing at attention in the First Sergeant’s office when the CO came in and looked us over. He saw the name tags; Padgett, Padgett, and Padgett standing before him and that really set him off.
He came up to me with his nose a half inch from mine and screamed at me that this time I will pay dearly. But it wasn’t that bad. I got another Article 15 and another demotion to PFC, and I was supposed to pay for the engine that blew up. But once again, they never actually charged me for the damage.
Back to the motor pool I went. I spent many more days wasting time and smoking hash while I waited for my enlistment to end. I decided I should get my teeth fixed while I was waiting, so I went to the Post dentist office and asked for an appointment. They told me to come in on Thursday. I asked for an appointment slip that I could show to the new communications officer because I knew he was a hard ass. They told me I didn’t need one and to just come in on Thursday.
Thursday arrives and I tell the Commo officer that I have a dentist appointment. He says, “Where’s your appointment slip?” I said, “They said I wouldn’t need one.”
He says, “You can’t go without one.” I had had just about enough of the Army stupidness at that point and I swore, “Goddammit” and threw my hat on the floor. A bit childish, to say the least. He says, “Report to the First Sergeant.” Oh boy, I thought. Here we go again.
While I was standing at attention outside of the First Sergeant’s office and waiting for the hammer to fall, I realized that the only people who saw the exchange between me and the Commo officer were two other enlisted men who were friends of mine. I figured that they would not be witnesses against me — that they would say they didn’t see anything.
I got called into the CO’s office and there was the CO and the Commo officer looking pretty grim. They had my Article 15 already typed up and demanded that I sign it. When presented with an Article 15, an enlisted man has the option of demanding a court martial. But losing in a court martial usually means spending some time in the stockade before they give you a dishonorable discharge and kick you out of the Army.
I said I wanted a court martial and they looked at me like I was crazy. I said nothing happened at the Commo shop and I had no idea what they were talking about. In the days that followed and while they conducted their investigation, it became clear to them that there were no witnesses and so it was my word against the Commo officer’s. They soon dropped the case and I was permanently reassigned to the First Sergeant’s detail.
The First Sergeant’s detail was a squad that was made up of one guy selected each day from each platoon who had to work for the First Sergeant that day. The detail was anything the First Sergeant wanted done, from cleaning nasty stuff to sweeping streets to digging holes etc. It was basically punishment but in most cases it was work that actually needed to be done.
After 3 months or so on permanent detail, I went to the First Sergeant and asked him to give me break. I promised to stay out of trouble if he would ease up on me some. Well, he had another job for me alright — buying the ingredients for and making 300 baloney sandwiches every day, and stocking sodas that the CQ (Charge of Quarters — a sergeant who stays up all night in the barracks) sold to men who got the munchies at night.
The money the First Sergeant earned off of this was supposed to go to the “dayroom fund” (recreation room for the men that has pool tables, TV, games etc). The dayroom was beautiful, but it was never open because the First Sergeant wanted to keep it nice for inspection. Perhaps if he had let us use the dayroom once in a while we might not have smoked so much dope.
So, from then on I worked about two hours a day doing my job as the First Sergeant's Baloney Sandwich Guy. I would go to the PX and buy 10 cases of soda and enough bread and baloney to make 300 sandwiches. Then I would slap a piece of baloney between two pieces of bread and put them in sandwich bags. I also provided large jars of mayonnaise and mustard. I had his concession running so smoothly that the First Sergeant left me alone and I was free to spend my days doing whatever I felt like doing.
And what I felt like doing at that point was improving myself in mind and body because I would soon be hitting the real world again and have to fend for myself.
I was about six months away from the end of my enlistment when I heard that because the war in Vietnam was winding down the Army was letting some folks out early. Unfortunately my service dates fell just outside the deadline for qualifying for an “early out” and I was really annoyed at that. I went to the First Sergeant again and asked him if he could do anything about it so I could go home. He said, “Don’t worry about it, I’ll take care of everything.” And he did. I served a total of 2 years, 8 months and 14 days of my three year enlistment and was honorably discharged in July 1972.
Read the rest of my mildly interesting life story and see links to my web sites at: http://kenpadgett.com