14 December 2008


The next day, we graduated. Friday afternoon was spent turning in gear, field-daying the squad bay and packing for home. Taps was at 2200, as usual. Staff Sergeant Johnston tucked us in, with his usually hearty “Good night, A—ho—s” as he hit the light switch. But we were a salty bunch by then and we broke the sound barrier with an equally hearty “Good Night m------------!”

The lights came back on and we had “game night” until 0157, when, after each of us shook Staff Sergeant Johnston’s hand, and amidst much laughter, we were allowed to hit the rack. (Regarding "game night," it is possible to cram two small candidates into one wall locker if you are really creative and don’t mind a broken finger or two!)

"Reveille" came three minutes later at 0200 so that we could eat breakfast, head for the airport, and return home to complete our final year of college. True to form, Neal was banished to the corner, without breakfast, because of those silly shoes!

My Mom picked me up at Lambert Field, St. Louis, on a warm July Saturday. I was tired, but exhilarated. Mom was subdued, unusually so.

As we crossed the I-270 bridge to Granite City, she asked, “So, did you still like it?”

“Oh, yeah, it was great.”

“Well, what do you want to do in the Marine Corps?”

“I want to be an infantry officer, of course,” I replied.

She gasped and nearly hit the side wall of the bridge. “Oh, Michael,” she asked. “Why the infantry?”

“Because that’s where the action is!”

“That’s what Butch Leutenegger said, and he’s dead!”

Thus did I learn that my next door neighbor, PFC Joseph C. “Butch” Leutenegger, USMC, had become one of 27 men from my home town of 40,000 to die in Vietnam. (His name appears on Panel 22 E, line 107 on The Wall.) He was killed in action on July 2, 1967 at the age of 20 while serving with 1st Battalion, 9th Marines (The Walking Dead).

Two other Marines from the St. Louis area were from Butch's company and were KIA in the same action. At the request of their families, they are buried side-by-side-by-side in Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery. It’s less lonely that way. Semper Fidelis.

Later that summer, Mom proposed that we (Mom, my brother, sister, grandmother and I) go on “one last family vacation” up through Canada. It was years later before the import of that the word “last” finally hit me.

During that trip, we attended the changing of the guard on the lawns of the House of Commons at Ottawa. The honored guest for that particular parade was a U.S. Marine who was Canadian. He had been wounded in action and was still on crutches.

A group of American war protesters tried to unfurl a banner of some sort, but the lads of the Royal Highland Regiment of Canada (The Black Watch of Canada) were having none of that!

To the skirl of the pipes, the protestors learned an important lesson—if you want to claim your rights as an American citizen, you actually have to be in the United States to do it. If you elect to run away from your country and refuse to pay the price for those rights—a price that can be pretty hefty—well, no one in your new place of residence is liable to care.

That was my introduction to a another curious phenomenon. Even as US draft dodgers headed into Canada, a number of Canadian warriors came south to enlist and serve in Vietnam. When I commanded Fox Company, Ninth Marines, my Company Gunnery Sergeant was a Canadian who had enlisted after his brother was wounded in action and medically discharged. In my opinion, we got the better part of that deal—we traded deadbeats and cowards for warriors—a shortage in every country’s bloodline.

In September, I returned to ISU for my final year. In the second half of the first semester, I lived in Decatur, Illinois and student taught at Stephen Decatur High School, in the same building from which my maternal grandfather graduated in 1895.

At Christmas, I traveled by train to Chicago for my pre-commissioning physical. When the Chief Hospital Corpsman at RS, Chicago saw the results of my eye test, he said, “Damn! I doubt that they’ll commission you with those eyes.”

It was a long train ride home. When I got home late that night, Mom saw that I was upset. She did her best to buck me up, but I was pretty distraught.

I finished my student teaching just as the Tet Offensive of 1968 commenced. One of the young teachers at Decatur High was pretty upset with me. It seems that her husband who was “really smart, way too smart to be wasted in the Army,” had nonetheless been drafted and was serving with the 2d Infantry Division in Korea.

She never lost an opportunity to remind me that while I was going to get killed in Vietnam, at least her husband was safe in Korea. I pretty much ignored her until the morning in the teachers’ lounge that someone told her that the North Koreans had seized USS Pueblo. When someone turned on the TV for the news and it showed the 2d ID moving into position to repel a possible attack on South Korea, she lost it.

Surprisingly, she turned to me, asking if her husband was going to be OK? Even more surprisingly, I told her he would be just fine. What really stunned me was that none of the other teachers, especially the women, had offered her any comfort.

When I returned to campus for my final semester, I received a letter from Headquarters, Marine Corps, offering me a regular commission. I accepted by return mail!

A couple of days later, I returned from class to find a note on my door from my roommate. “Call your Mom. Everything is OK.”

Now, as anyone who attended college in those days may recall, we did not regularly call home during the week. In fact, most waited until after 9:00 pm on Sunday when the long-distance tolls went way down. This was an extraordinary event. I called.

“I want to read a letter I got in the mail today,” Mom said. “Dear Mrs. McCarty, President Johnson has asked me to respond to your recent letter regarding your son, Michael……”

“Oh, jeez, Mom. What did you do?”

Well, at the height of the Tet Offensive, my Mother wrote to the President of the United States and said, essentially, “Hey, my kid wants to serve while other kids are running to Canada. Watcha gonna do about that?”

Actually, it is a very moving letter. It started, “I feel like the most unnatural of Mothers.” Friends, that is mother-love at its finest.

The rest of the school year rushed along. I met the girl who would become my first wife. LBJ unilaterally caved in and stopped bombing the north at a time when the North Vietnamese government was assessing its massive casualties in the Tet Offensive and coming to the realization that the bombing campaign had reduced them to a point that they would have to withdraw troops and ask for a cease fire within three weeks.

I finished my seminar paper for “Germany Between The World Wars” on the quality of proof at Nuremberg Trials. (The quality of proof was pretty low, but the bastards were clearly guilty, so we ought not feel bad that they hanged for specific offenses that were never proven. Churchill had actually argued against having trials and in favor of drum head courts-martial, followed by a quick visit to the gallows for the civilians and a display of Allied marksmanship for the High Command.)

Dr. King was assassinated and cities burned.

Bobby was assassinated and America shuddered..

And then, on Saturday June 8, 1968, I accepted a commission as a Second Lieutenant of Marines tendered by the President of the United States (with the advice and consent of the Senate).

My joy was tempered by the demand of the university that I wear a cap and gown over my uniform lest I should offend anyone in attendance at graduation. But my Mom deserved a graduation ceremony, so I swallowed my pride and walked across the stage.

Next stop, The Basic School.

© 2010 Michael R. McCarty. All rights reserved.

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