Michael Sample (unedited – not in CALLED TO SERVE)
Michael was born in New Haven, CT, but has lived most of his 60 years in Billings, MT. He is a free lance nature photographer with numerous books to his credit. He travels the state widely and also has produced an annual Montana calendar every year since the early ‘70’s. He is married and has four grown children and two grandchildren.
I was in college in Connecticut in 1969. I was a senior. I knew that Montana was taking every warm body it could get its hands on. There were almost no deferments being given. The draft board in Butte was very proud of the Montana contribution to wars in the past as well as the Montana units that were going to places in Vietnam. As much as I would have liked to have been able to argue for CO (conscientious objector) status, I really couldn’t. I didn’t know a priest who would vouch for me and I felt that it was going to be a little bit of a lie. I couldn’t do that and I certainly couldn’t go to Canada. When I graduated from Trinity College in May of 1969, I knew that I was facing the letter, which would come to my house rather soon.
I started checking out reserve units which I felt was an acceptable, admittedly half-hearted, but still an acceptable way to fulfill my military obligation. In Billings all reserve units were full except one and that was the Marine Corps. The recruiter was quite excited, especially after I took their tests, which were practically off the map, because that said to him that I qualified as a good potential radio operator which this unit had never had before. It was a reconnaissance unit and the commanding officer had voiced a wish that he could get a bonafide radio operator who he could use in the field as his connection with the rest of the troops. So the recruiter built this up as a great job. He told me I was perfect for it; that I had the intelligence and I would really love it. This meant that I was going to California, to train in San Diego. I had no notion of what the Marine Corp meant, what it meant to be a Marine, or who the Marines were. So naïvely when I did get my letter to report for a physical, I immediately signed up for the Marine Corp reserve.
My father had been in the OSS as a first lieutenant. He never talked about it much. He would say things like he examined the garbage, the paper that they got from the Japanese in World War II for hints of what the Japanese were going to do. He was there when John Birch was shot. This was said to be the beginning of World War III. John Birch tried to arrogantly bully his way with the Chinese communists and he was shot and a lot was made of him, but my father always maintained to the national press that he was arrogant, he was just asking basically to be shot. My father crashed twice, but very little has ever been said about his experience in the war. He was a distant father. He was a workaholic. I rarely saw him and I don’t feel like I really knew him. Until I was in my 30’s I didn’t appreciate a lot of who he was because I didn’t really know and on his part, I don’t think he was much into fatherhood and he had nothing to say about my military options. When he was with his friend Sam Scoville, who my father first knew in the army, they would make fun of my position of being critical of the Vietnam War. They apparently thought that the hippies and the people who were shot at Kent State, all the protesters were way off base and this was a good war to fight. It was more Sam Scoville than it was my father, who never took a position regarding my service. I knew I couldn’t be 4-F because I was perfectly physically fit. My mother similarly had no pronouncements on my military service. She was not into parenting much. She was not close to me. It was quite a lonely area of my life. I felt like I had to face this by myself, without any family support. It was just me. The trouble with going away to school for ten years in three different places was that I really had no friends in Montana that I knew well, that I could depend on.
As for the war itself, I was aware of much of the protest against Vietnam. I honestly was somewhat conflicted about it. I could see the thinking of the anti-war sentiment and I could also see that it was a military duty that the country had to be able to depend on its citizens to come forward and help with the wartime effort. I tried to hold out hope that there was some value, that the president was right in maintaining that it was a war we needed to be in and I felt that Kennedy had lofty goals that the South Vietnamese people should really not be oppressed by the communist North, but I was very confused and conflicted during both the Johnson and Nixon administrations. There’s no doubt about it. So I was kind of in what I would describe as a miasma – it was a lonely, undecided, unsupported time in my life. When I was done with college, I really had no notion of what I was going to do next anyway since I really hadn’t prepared for a job. I wasn’t going to be a lawyer or a doctor. I didn’t know exactly what I was going to be. I kind of passively accepted that I had this military service, I had this charge. Being in the reserves was some degree of assurance that I wasn’t going to be in active duty for which I was very grateful. I couldn’t imagine myself in South Vietnam, a swamp with snakes and bugs and all of the violent things I was beginning to see on television so graphically. I couldn’t see myself as an active combatant and in that scene so the reserves seemed like an honorable way out. It was a way of facing up to the fact that I had to do something.
Immediately upon graduating from college, I did get my letter. I signed up with the Marine Corps and I was inducted and sent to MCRD (the Marine Corps Recruitment Depot) in San Diego in August of ’69. I remember being picked up at the airport and put in the back of a truck with half a dozen other people and being taken to this base and having no clue as to what was going to happen. It was quite startling because I piled out of the truck and there were 75 other people in my same straits basically. 50 of us were college graduates. We were lined up roughly and given our first introduction to drill instructors. They clued us in on what to expect in the next 10 weeks. I instantly got the feeling that these are tough men, that they’re heartless, that they really don’t care about you much. All the things you’ve come to value, your individuality, their program is to make you much less of an individual and much more of a cog in the wheel.
The first thing they do is take you through the hair cut line. The irony of that was while they were shaving my head, there was this song on the radio, which was very popular at that time by Peter, Paul, and Mary, “Leaving on A Jet Plane,” which was rapidly becoming something I wanted to do. You’re given the standard equipment and everything is an order that’s barked at you. You learn to scream, “Yes, sir” and you don’t say, “I will do something” or “You”- or if it’s a female, “she” because there was one teacher who was a woman – you say, “the Private” and you refer to a drill instructor as a “drill instructor” even though he is a sergeant or a staff sergeant or a gunnery sergeant. That would be the way that they would normally be referred to, but in their vernacular, you’re referred to as a “maggot” a low life scum that really needs to be whipped in to shape before he’s worth anything.
Boot camp was the essential kernel of my pre-Corps service and the whole rationale of boot camp is to tear down your individuality and make you easily react to orders whether it’s “turn left” or it’s “shoot” or it’s “take a left flank” or whatever. It’s the making of people who do not question orders, but are instantly responsive. The whole rationale, of course, was that this would save lives in Vietnam. Their thinking was that we were all going to Vietnam, even though it turned out that more than half of us were reservists. The positive was that we learned that there were things we could do that we probably thought we could never do: being able to eat a meal in 30 seconds; to participate effectively in a battle; to shine our belt buckle or shoes; to march for long periods of time under full pack; to run with a rifle and port arms, a nine pound rifle, full canteens, run for six miles and hardly be breathing that hard at all. There was a certain measure of accomplishment. It was quite remarkable what they could train you to do, but there was also, at least in my instance, a sort of retreating into my mind and trying to maintain who I thought I was, kind of in secret or holding it to myself while meanwhile complying with the orders. I could be screaming, “Kill, kill, kill,” and smash a guy’s head with my dummy bayonet which was really a padded stick, but I disassociated myself from this. I would tell myself it was just an exercise. It was not for real.
The brutality of the Marine Corp was the biggest shock to me. I had this sensation that I could fall over and people would just keep on marching and the drill instructors wouldn’t care. I could be dying and I wouldn’t be helped by anyone. It was an uncaring, totally insensitive atmosphere. The are two or three dramatic examples – and I stress that because most of it was not this way, but you certainly remember these things best and they certainly prompt the biggest response. Right off the bat, we were taken on a marching lesson, which was called “The Practice Grinder”. It was a long asphalt parade ground, which paralleled the runways of the San Diego airport and oddly enough the San Diego airport – the runway – is just a couple hundred yards away from the practice grinder. It’s right there; it has all the symbolism of freedom. So on this particular day we were marching down this parade ground and jets took off and landed frequently in the San Diego airport and when they did I couldn’t hear much. They chose me to be one of the platoon leaders. I was up at the front. The drill instructor was waved back—this is a man who had come back from Vietnam, and was now one of the three drill instructors. I had a very real sense that he hated people with education. He apparently had an 8th grade education and he was quite proud of the fact that that was all he had. He gave a command to halt, that the front people in the four lines did not hear since a plane was landing. We just kept on marching and so he ran around up to the front where we were still marching and he screamed, of course, “Halt.” We all came to a halt in a shambles because it was not the usual timing. He came up to me. My rifle was being held at port arms (diagonally across your chest, ready for action). He screamed in my face, “Did you hear me call halt?” and I actually said, “No, sir.” He asked the same question again, incredulous that he didn’t get the answer the he expected the first time. This time I also screamed, “NO, SIR!” With that he took his hand – thumb on one side and forefingers on the other – and he shoved against the rifle and the end of the rifle hit me in the cheek. It was quite a blow. I felt like I was going to faint, yet I was trying to stand at attention. It was one of the most bizarre and brutal moments that I had ever experienced in my life. I don’t know why he particularly picked on me. We got lined up and we started marching again, and that was the end of that, but there was a great big welt on my cheekbone and quite a raw, nasty, slightly broken spot there. My fellow reservists, in the few moments we had by ourselves since the drill instructor was always right there on top of us, commiserated with me because they all understood that you just could not have heard the command.
That was one example, but the most dramatic moment by far in terms of brutality was when we were being marched to a meal. The worst instance that I saw involved this gentle giant of a fellow from Puerto Rico who had a master’s degree, which of course irked our 8th grade educated drill instructor the most. It really infuriated him. He was what we called “The Guide” of the platoon. A large number of people all keyed in on this one guide who marched at the front of the platoon and there would be 4 people at the front of the line behind the guide. I was one of those four. We were marching to a meal. We marched everywhere. You never just casually walked anywhere. We were marching between quonset huts and there was another platoon that was marching towards us presumably going back to their huts and the same drill instructor I mentioned earlier was behind me, the one who so disliked educated folks. He was chatting with someone from behind the platoon and didn’t notice that the two platoons were about to collide. At the last second, our guide veered to the right so that people didn’t literally go right into each other and the drill instructor ran up to the front of the platoon and screamed “Halt”. He proceeded to take this Puerto Rican fellow out of line and into a nearby quonset hut. I cannot tell you what happened for sure because I didn’t see it, but I can tell you the facts, which are that the Puerto Rican soldier came out of that Quonset hut on a stretcher with a broken leg. The story that I heard, that was passed to us from him in the hospital, was that he was commanded to put his foot up on a foot locker and the drill instructor jumped on the leg and broke his leg. That was the last we saw of him. He came out on that stretcher and he was sent to the hospital. His full-training was delayed several months while he recovered.
There was some quiet talk amongst us for the next day or two about whether we should go through the chain of command and basically tell on this drill instructor because this, of course, was absolutely against their rules. This would have meant that we would have stayed basically on the same training day until they could convene a trial and could hear the testimony and could go through the whole hearing. I always felt that it was gutless of us not to do that. We all knew exactly what happened, but we hadn’t seen it. It was just so clear. I can still hear that fellow screaming. It was just a horrible thing to hear and we knew what had happened. This man was so brutal. I don’t think it was the man’s ethnicity that provoked the sergeant though it could have been a factor. I think it was his education. I’m sure that a part of it was his resentment. He was acting to a certain extent, but he was just so hostile towards people who had had more education than he. He felt that all that education was useless in Vietnam; that he had seen comrades killed and all this education was for nothing. It was much more important to know how to be able to fire a rifle or use a knife or whatever.
At this point for us, as far as Vietnam was concerned, because we didn’t see any TV, we didn’t hear any radio, we didn’t see newspapers, we didn’t have any news at all. We were just in the world of Marines – from the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli. We were busy becoming Marines on a ten-week schedule that force fed you everything that they felt you needed to know. They like to make a lot about how close you are to your rifle. You clean the rifle every day, you carry it almost all the time, and you have it locked up to the bottom of your bed when you are asleep. You had to be able to account for its whereabouts at all times. It was your friend and, of course, we spent a while week on the range learning to fire. We learned how to breathe, relax, aim, pull up the slack, and squeeze from four different positions, rapid fire as well as single fire. You knew the characteristics of that rifle, inside and out. You, in fact, knew how to clean, disassemble and reassemble it in the dark. It was the tool of the trade. Oddly enough I had a rifle that someone had put some substance on. I didn’t know what it was, but it is a compound that changes the coloration of the barrel of the. It caused a lot of remarks from the drill instructors who would look at it and confer. It was kind of mysterious. I guess it wasn’t supposed to have been done by whoever did it, but they allowed that this was my rifle.
Eventually it all comes down to the last two weeks of training. You have this week at the range and you get your scores which are huge in the world of the Marine Corps. Either you’re an expert or two stages below expert and I had the highest score of 320 men in the company, not just the platoon. That was a big deal. That is core to being a rifleman in the Marine Corps. Then you have the last week when you go through various sets of tests. You run a timed run. It’s six miles with your rifle and your two full canteens over a flat course. This was a competition between the four platoons and you also do a lot of other physical tests. Climbing ropes seemed to be one of my gifts. I could climb ropes quite fast. We’d have relays and there was lots of team-building. We had a written test, a several hour written test, which involved the Marine Corps history and lots of first aid sorts of things, stopping bleeding, clearing the airways, that sort of thing. At the end you have an inspection where you get an officer, which is almost like a different category of people. The drill instructors are all sergeants, non-commissioned officers. Suddenly, you have these magical people who have shiny insignia on their lapels who inspect the platoon. They are the officers, the gods. Four of them come in and they inspect your rifle, your shoes, your belt buckle, your posture. They ask you a series of questions, which you are supposed to answer at full voice even though these people are 18 inches away from your face, which always seemed sort of bizarre to me. I was at the front of the line. I do well in inspection. The officer asked me a couple of personal questions. He discovers I’m a reservist and he encourages me to sign up for the regular service instead of just a six month service.
One of the last things is that you have a marching competition. The commander of the base was a general. It’s hard for me to believe that this is really a duty worthy of a general, but it was an interesting experience because the adrenaline was flowing so fast. You’re so hyped up about this that even though you have spent 10-weeks learning marching cadence and learning how – right flank and port arms and various salutes and various fancy maneuvers; nonetheless, under these circumstances with all these people watching you, the Marine Corps Band playing, it’s suicide. Everything becomes double time and we didn’t do very well at that. We were just a bunch of college kids who got pretty hyped up. We did end up being the top platoon, but it was not for our marching. Then you have this grand graduation ceremony which gratefully my step-sister came down for from San Francisco. My parents weren’t at all interested in coming. After the half hour graduation ceremony we had a couple of hours you had more or less free time to wander around the base and visit and then you were back into the barracks and you were given new orders of where you were going to go.
In my case, it was Camp Hamilton for advanced infantry training. It was something of a joke because of how much less strict it was – much less cruel, much less controlled. You still didn’t have any liberty. One of the significant things about the past ten weeks was that we’ve had no interchange with females other than the occasional letter. You lived for the mail. Mail call was the big event of the day. You prayed that you got a letter. We had almost no time to write letters except after hours where you had a flashlight under a blanket. I remember praying for people to write to me and saying over and over again in 96 ways in the letters I sent that I missed being outside, that I missed the news and missed their company.
In infantry training, we learned all sorts of things like how to fire a rocket, how to fire a pistol, and how to march twenty hours overnight and set up a camp – dig a fox hole, and crawl under live fire. That was two more months. While I was there I learned about the draft lottery, the results, the number-picking. I don’t remember how I found out with the news blockage, but I had a very high number and I would certainly not have had to go in with this number. I think I was standing in line getting a meal and, of course, it seemed like a cruel joke, but that was history. I just felt that the timing had been off just far enough that it didn’t apply to me so while I understood the importance of it as an arbitrary number-picking process instead of the kind of convoluted system they had had before – they took you or they didn’t – it just didn’t apply to me and it was just sort of a rye note of many rye notes in this experience. Meanwhile I was being encouraged to become a Marine officer. I believe that that meant six years and there was no way that I was going to spend six years of my life doing the service-related things I knew I would have to be doing, including inspecting recruits like myself. It did have an appeal to me. It was slightly flattering that for once, as a Marine, my intelligence was respected. But in the end, “No, thank you.”
As for friendships, you had little chance to get close to people at boot camp certainly. You knew who the people were who were going to screw things up. That was a big thing because that had consequences for everybody. There were people who just were screw ups, but there were also people who had voiced their desire or intention to go AWOL, over the wall. We heard rumors about one person who actually did this. He was sent to a “motivational platoon” where they – this is all rumor although I saw a little bit of this actually – would take sledge hammers and pound rocks of concrete into powder and then make new blocks out of the powder only to then have to pound those into powder once more to demonstrate how pointless it was to try and escape your national duty. This was supposed to motivate people to get back into the program and not go AWOL, which was almost impossible anyway. We were behind high fences of sharp wire at all times.
I had six weeks of radio school right at the end. Oddly enough this came after having some liberty to go back to Billings and have a week off. I remember being in the airport and you’ve got this special military ticket and you’re walking around and it seems so odd that this is going back to normalcy. The uniform separates you from everyone else and there didn’t seem to be any respect for the uniform. You’re a different category of person than everyone else. There was certainly no hero worship or anything like that. Maybe it was because of Vietnam and the protest the war created, but there was no respect. You have this horrendously short hair and you’ve gone through this horrendously brutal time and you feel that you can’t get back to normal life. It’s complicated. There are several ways that it changes you. I think I grew up some. I probably needed to toughen up. Even though I didn’t have an easy childhood in some ways emotionally, I certainly had a very soft, privileged childhood with my wealthy father and my wonderfully generous grandparents. It was quite a democratic type of experience. So there was a big breakthrough there, in terms of feeling that I could do quite a lot and that I was at the height of my physical powers. I could both laugh at the fact that I was now a “mean machine” and at the same time hate it. I think it may have been damaging. Those people who went on to have active military service in Vietnam had it by far the worst compared to someone like myself who went through the reserve program for six months and five and a half more years of weekends. Two weeks out of the summer. That was a much easier way to go. The reservist part of it didn’t leave a whole lot of impression on me, but given the givensI would have to say I would probably do the same again. Perhaps I would have worked harder, have gone further afield to find a national guard unit or something of that sort. It would have been easier, but as I said, maybe I needed something about this experience.
As for the anti-war movement, the protesting part was really back East. I didn’t know anyone in Montana who was protesting. I’m sure that there were people protesting, but I didn’t know them. I wasn’t part of it. It was startling to go back to Trinity and back to the east coast. I felt like I had to some extent betrayed my principles, but I was no longer sure what my principles were. Mostly I was watching how things unfolded on television and being aware of a mounting sense of outrage at myself. It took a long time. I was not quick to move on. I knew that I wanted to get out of the Marine Corps and that I wanted to start a new life. I wanted to cleanse myself of the Marine Corp. A lot of it, in addition to being brutal was just plain stupid, but what I recall is absolutely a focus on the here and now, on the present day, on what comes next. The whole gathering of rumors and “where are you going to be assigned next?” And “when are you going to get your orders?” Everything was about recent events, interior to the boot camp. We had just about no interchange with people who were protesting the war. There were a lot of comments about how stupid things were, but it was more how you had to use the toothbrush to get the seams of your boot clean so that they didn’t gleam white. An inspecting officer looked down at you, at your boots, and it was a very concrete way to pick at you.
After active duty there were several years when I would wake up with bad dreams, when I would dream of something that came right out of the Marine Corps experience. I’d wake up in a sweat, catching myself, if I’m falling off a rope or in the midst of some crisis or witnessing things that I was powerless to do anything about. That powerlessness, that was one of the central experiences of being in the military. You’re both trained to be powerful and you’re also trained to be powerless and it’s bizarre. It has faded for me. It took years, but it faded and it’s pretty much all gone. I can’t access too well the anxieties that I used to have, the fear that I would disappoint my commanding officer or not make it to a meeting or something like that. My record was very clean and clear, but there was a tremendous amount of anxiety along with a counting of the months and a distaste for the insensitivity and the stupidities.
In the end I was pretty happy with my performance overall. There was that one time that I had misgivings when I really felt that we should have tackled that drill instructor who broke that fellow’s leg, but there were times when I was put in a position of power myself. As an acting non-commissioned officer I was the head of 36 men who went to radio training. I marched them to the mess hall. I marched them to class. I set up fire watches. We always had at least two men awake at all times when we were in the barracks asleep. It was just something that was required of military service that you always had people on guard, even inside a building. There were chances – I could have been mean-spirited, I could have played favorites. I felt the temptations of wanting power and I have to say that I never succumbed to any of them. It’s a small point of triumph, but a very small one.