Perhaps nowhere else in a young person’s life is serendipity more critical than while in the military. Pure luck can greatly affect the chance of survival.
I can vividly recall the September morning on the last day of advanced training in 1968 at Fort Lee, Virginia racing with my fellow soldiers to find our permanent assignment destinations posted on the bulletin board. Names were, agonizingly, not listed in alphabetical order so you had to just search. What was immediately obvious was the designation of RVN (Republic of Vietnam) next to every name on the first two columns. Finally, half way down the third column, was my name – Specialist 4th Class J. Raftus. Next to my name was ALA (Alaska). Mine was the first name not assigned to the war raging in Vietnam. A small smattering of other G.I.’s listed below me were going to Germany, South Korea and Japan. Then the list reverted back to the ominous RVNs. Approximately 85% of our “class” was headed to Southeast Asia.
Each year as Veteran’s Day rolls around the strange mix of relief and guilt I had felt standing in front of that list in 1968 resurrects. I suspect that many military people who were on active duty during those turbulent years, but never sent to combat areas, feel the same ambivalence. We did not shirk our duty. In fact, I enlisted in April of 1968. However, we know that others paid a steeper price, 58,220 with their lives. We share a common bond with veterans of this era, but know our paths were surely different.
Two military flights I took in 1970 confirmed how different these paths were. In April of that year I decided to use leave time from my duties at Fort Richardson in Anchorage, Alaska to visit the World’s Fair in Osaka, Japan. I caught military flights both ways, so my first flight contained troops heading towards Vietnam and my return trip was part of the soldier’s, so called, “Freedom Flights” home. The differences were palpable. My flight going to Japan was a military transport plane, bare boned, a hollowed out fuselage with bench seating facing in from the curved walls. Since I had been to college a couple of years before enlisting I was older than most of the other passengers. Their youth startled me. There was some nervous chatter and a few card games ensued. The mood felt more subdued than somber. Of course, this was not the last leg of their journey to RVN. I was observing them in a sort of mid-stream mentality. Friends have since described their final arrival flight to me. Steve Eno, a Pawtucket native, and a First Lieutenant, told me of how on his flight the stewardess (It was a TWA contract flight.) made this announcement as they rolled to a stop on the runway just outside of Saigon; “Welcome to Saigon. We look forward to bringing all of you home in a year. “ Her voice cracked while saying the final words.
My flight back to Alaska was also a full military flight. The returning veterans, after one year at war, seemed much older than the “cherries” I had flown with ten days prior. The plane was oddly quiet until the announcement was made that we were approaching the airport in Anchorage. Smiles broadened and you could sense a burden being lifted. When the wheels hit the runway the plane erupted with cheers and back slapping. Most of the soldiers upon reaching the bottom of the plane’s exit staircase bent to kiss the tarmac. Alaska, not home, but part of the United States.
It has been well over four decades since this, our most unsatisfactory war, ended. Most of the unwarranted, and greatly exaggerated, rancor towards these troops has abated and they are seen as having done their duty.
This Veteran’s Day I salute all my fellow former military personnel and wish them peace and joy. May serendipity provide good luck to all of us for the rest of our lives.
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