Updated: Mar 2, 2022
When I was just graduating High School, I had already decided to sign up with the Air Force while the Vietnam War was still sending body bags of troops back home. I went in on a buddy system of nine guys all from Western Pennsylvania with eight of us going into the AF and our one friend Reineky who opted for the Marines instead. Two of my best hometown friends convinced me to join up with them since none of us had any hopes of getting an education or traveling the world any other way since we were poor kids from coal miner and steel mill working families.
Once we arrived at Lackland AFB in San Antonio in June 1973, We were immediately singled out by the Training Instructor as Rainbows (because of our 70's colorful bell-bottom pants and puffy shirts) But also as an eight-man unit now assigned latrine duty for the first couple of weeks after arriving there. We learned to take an M-16 apart, clean it, put it back together and then shoot it. I was classified as a sharpshooter based on my accuracy but after basic training, and at least while I was in the military, I never shot a gun again.
We would go through regiments of running, climbing, doing drills, and working through obstacle courses with real barbed wire but not real ammunition. You always had to worry about rattlers and scorpions so laying low didn't always give you the best view. Towards the end of our three-month training regime, Unexpected news came to me from back home. I can see that day vividly, I can also remember the time but at the moment, everything was a blur.
I was one of four airmen who were the fastest runners in our flight and my good friend Andy Jackson was usually competing with me for either 3rd or 4th place in the 3/4 mile and mile exercises. That afternoon it was a Sunday in late July and I was across the base doing kitchen duty when Andy flew into the backdoor of the kitchen facility and told me that I was needed back at CQ (Commanding Headquarters) He didn't know what it was about but only that it was an emergency at home. I left Andy in my dust that day as I zig-zagged and crisscrossed across the base to get to the headquarters.
Out of breath, I knocked on the Commanding Officer's door. This man was your typical "Typical You can't handle the Truth" type POS Officer who was too cowardly to do his duty and let me know what the emergency back home was, so instead, silently he drove me over to the base chaplain's office and left me there. As I sat there still dripping sweat from running so fast and so far in the Texas heat, The chaplain came into the room and then without any kind of emotional bracing, He said to me: Well, You know that your younger brother was sick - He died. I as a soldier completely broke down, sobbing uncontrollably. The chaplain then said to me: I am so very sorry, Your Commander was supposed to have informed you about your brother's passing. I glared at this man of the cloth and said angrily: Well, HE DIDN'T.
The Red Cross whisked me away from Texas in a matter of hours with a layover in Atlanta and then one in Pittsburgh. My father always presented himself as a tough steel-mill worker so when I reached out to him when I arrived in Atlanta, His voice cracked from overwrought emotion and I just suppressed my own hurt and strongly told him that I would be home soon.
So many people showed up for my little brother Markie's funeral. Mark had not even made it to three years old before brittle diabetes took his life and I had to have my Mother explain to me why all these folks (almost the whole town) showed up. She made sense when she said that people feel so sad when a child dies that they are drawn to their funerals out of profound empathy of a soul lost so soon in their life. I was annoyed regardless.
My older Navy brother and I both saluted Markie as we laid him to rest at our family burial plots and then I had to do an about-face and return back to San Antonio within three days in order to graduate with my flight that I was assigned to along with my other buddies. I still had to do CPR training, some more target shooting, calisthenics, and each task, I completed quickly enough and was able to finish in time and not be set back and assigned to another flight.
Markie was and always will be my personal HERO because he was taking insulin shots in his belly at the age of two and hardly ever gave out a whimper. To this day, I wonder if I had stayed and not gone into the Air Force, Could I have given him the impetus to continue fighting and living? And now that I am old and weary, I know that the answer is: NO but this is my only regret for joining the Air Force during wartime and especially when we had no business being in Vietnam in the first place.
I wasn't a Red, White, and Blue Patriot at the time - I was just a poor kid with few options, Steel Mills, Coal Mines, or Military. College....Forgetaboutit!
Article by Wester T.