BY BARBARA DANE KILLEEN, TEXAS---This Texas town is a long walk or a short ride from Fort Hood, the largest such installation "in the world." (The GI mind even laughs at that:"the so-called free world, he means.") It is the collection of loan sharks (borrow $30 and pay back $42 if you hurry), pin ball palaces, sharp clothing stores (one had $100 alligator shoes, a brilliant green Nehru in the window, and about 12 feet of rack stacked with cossack shirts in satin colors), insurance brokers and jewelry stores you would expect. It grew from population 500 counting dogs in 1940 to "pushing 35,000" not counting the people on the base by 1968.
Boys who grow up in this scrub country 100 miles north of the LBJ ranch had better want to be in the army, or they carry on daddy's highly profitable store, or just harden into the permanent outsider, "goat ropers" as they are called, who won't take off their 10-gallon hats to anybody. The goat ropers are of delinquent/vigilante mentality, usually to be found with their right foot on the rail over in Harker Heights, where it's wet.
Fort Hood contains about 35,000 men plus about 65,000 auxiliary family. About 65% have already been to "Nam" and are sweating out their time. They are known as shorts, as opposed to lifers, or regular army. Young men come here directly from basic and go into on-the-job training in armored specialties: tank commander, gunner, driver, and loader. Each man is required to fill any position if the need arises. The 1st Armored Division is on alert for Korea and the 2nd Armored for Vietnam.
Twice a week, at least, everyone from cooks and clerks to tank jockeys and gunners take riot training. Several weeks ago, with one group arbitrarily designated as "hippies, beats, and other degenerates" and the other told to act as soldiers, a mock riot suddenly caught fire and broke into a real one. The "rioters" found themselves seizing a water-pumper which was to have sprayed them, and turning it on the brass standing by, including a general or two. Some lieutenants, told to monitor but not get involved, began to throw bottles. When a general yelled "you're not allowed to throw bottles in riots" he was promptly hit with one. This chaos lasted all day and no mock riot has been scheduled since.
I came to Killeen because I was invited by "Summer of Support" to sing for the GIs at the newly organized pilot project coffee house, "Oleo Strut." An oleo strut is a vertical shock absorber on the underside of a helicopter, and as one guy put it, "This place (the army) is such a bring-down we needed something to absorb the shock." I arrived on Wednesday afternoon, to find the place already bustling. When I left on Monday, I had yet to see the place quiet. Typically, in one corner were two in a tight head shot, talking intensely, four playing cards over there, in the back room a skinny Texan painting a "psychedelic poster... not too many people around here know what it is," another knocking out a poem on the ancient typewriter, others lounging around with copies of everything from Avant Gard, Ramparts, Green Lantern Comics, Camus, the Austin Rag (one of the country's best underground papers) and the Guardian to the Area Handbook for South Vietnam which was published by the U.S. Government in 1967. Others are eating chocolate cake, drinking cider, and listening to folk-rock on the hi fi machine.
It's easy to get down to serious talk with anyone. They are full of puzzling thoughts, unresolved conflicts, loneliness. "No one talks to you over at the base." The boys are dislocated from home and friends, but the deep dislocation in their heads is far more disturbing. Not one said "Gee, I miss my girl" or "Where are the chicks?" They are far too preoccupied with trying to understand that they are basically decent young people who have been asked to become murder machines.
IT'S A THREAT - The Strut has only been open two weeks, because of a severe money shortage, and the necessity to meet more than the usual local licensing restrictions. The town fathers see the place as a decided threat. They don't know what it is but they know it's different. Killeen Kops topped two GIs one afternoon because they were sitting on the sidewalk in front, smoking Bugler Tobacco in a hookah.
It has been rumored that the army wants to bust the place for "subversive activities," but unless the army goes through certain procedures to certify a place as "off limits" there is no legal way to prevent soldiers from spending as much free time there as they, wish. One soldier, Chuck G., was forbidden by his sergeant, however, to go to the Oleo Strut or to a love-in which was held July 4 by the University of Texas Veteran's Committee and the Strut organizers. He was told he would be picked up as AWOL and fined or jailed if he disobeyed. This kind] of threat is not uncommon.
The Love-In was a huge success. It was attended by more than 800 local young people including a large number of GIs (hard to single out because they wore what they call "love beads" and JC boots (sandals) thus, the birth of short-haired hip!)
When it was nearly dark, the organizers prudently decided to call it a day, since the goat ropers were reportedly ready to make a charge off the hill. As we all dispersed, they came down in a body, moved to the center of the crowd and seemed to wait for instructions. I saw a plainclothesman confer by walkie-talkie. There were a few minor scuffles, one smashed camera, a drum attacked, but the determined nonviolence of these soldiers (trained to reflexive violence mind you) won the day. The trouble makers moved off in a body, and we wandered off home. But not before the police had disappeared for a few moments, returning rather wistfully, I thought, with helmets and riot sticks with which they gently urged people to leave.
It will be a while before these young men can overcome the hang-ups created by being used as instruments of violence in someone else's plan. Instinct tells them now, 'Violent is what they want us to be - so violent is what we must be." "In the army the main thing you do is learn to hate - not the V.C. but our government. I never knew how to hate before, but I'm so full of it now I don't know if I can keep my sanity."
So they use a lot of grass: "It grows wild all around the base, so when you go out on tank maneuvers you just reach out and grab all you want, dry it, and start smoking."
In Vietnam, they said, "We wouldn't make it sane without grass. It costs 3 c a joint, or you can trade a $1.49 bottle of whiskey from the PX for an ounce." And why don't the officers stage a bust now and then? "What, and blow their own scene?" The guys estimate that between 50 and 80% of the men use marijuana regularly and heavily, both at Ft. Hood and in the combat zones.
'MEN ARE EXPENDABLE' - Do the Vietnamese want us there? "The heads of the government do, but not the people. I notice the V.C. blow up plenty of old bridges and roads, but after we build them nice new ones they don't blow them up unless it's absolutely neessary. They're getting us build up their country for them! The V.C. blows up equipment, but they try to leave the roads and bridges for the people to use. I notice too, they drop mortars into the choppers and the destructive equipment, but not into the most populous parts of the base. Men are expendable and equipment is precious to our Army, but with them it seems the other way around."
"I had a lot of time to think in Vietnam," John said. He comes from Ohio, where his father is a laborer for Standard Oil. He joined up at 17, to get away from home and go where "nobody tells you what to do. Ha, Ha." He re-enlisted in Germany, so he could get home for ChrisImas. "That was a terrible mistake." He volunteered for Vietnam and spent 18 months there because he wanted to go and see "what we were fighting for. Also you get extra money... We're paid mercenaries, you know." What do his folks think about the war? "I don't know how they feel. When you're home for 30 days you don't sit around and talk to the folks. I hope they're not for the war."
How do most of the men feel about the army? Some comments: "It's a bum rap". "Fuck the Army (or FTA for short)";"Why should we go and when do we get out?", and "I couldn't hack five years in jail, so I went."
"The Army knows how to handle all that subversive stuff," Col. Carpenter, the. base information officer, assured us out at the base. "We have a regulation requiring courses which teach the men how to spot and cope with insidious subversion. That protest malarky comes up now and then, but we know what to do about that. I guess some of us would be easy to subvert, though. Blackmail, you know. It's pretty much like you see it on TV, where the beautiful woman spy tries to trap you." Carpenter seemed a dry but decent man in his starched and creased informal military attire.
Is there much racial discrimination in the army? "Not among the
EMs (enlisted men)," one GI said, "because we have to depend on each other. Four guys in a tank, we got to be like a team. But we don't like to see the black guy fight and die just like us, and know that he can get pushed around at home." "I've seen those cracker officers really be mean. And I've seen a white man get treated light for the same offense a black man really got jammed for. The white guy got a three-month sentence plus a fine, suspended-and the black guy got the maximum of 6 months hard labor and 2/3 pay for 6 months, not suspended. The exact same offense."
One soldier who could be found at the Strut the whole weekend was Tim, who together with John K. is determined now to start a union at Fort Hood. Off-duty, he wears his "love beads" and peace sign around his neck, and conceives of himself as a dove, a non-violence. advocate. He had enlisted too; to get away from foster-parents he couldn't really get along with. And he re-enlisted, much to his regret, while still in Korea. He spent several long months there, at the DMZ and was sent on a super-secret spy mission.
"Our job was to get all the information we could about an outpost the North Koreans had up over the_line. We could easily have done that without killing the little guy on sentry, but I knew a special way to slip up behind him and throw a garrot around his neck which would take off his head... so I did. Kill a red for Christmas. We booby-trapped the outpost, too. At the time I couldn't feel a thing. You throw a shell around yourself and your emotions are an island. But I came back here and got married and the third night I woke up screaming. I became afraid to go to sleep."
What is the morale like in Vietnam? According to one GI: "Well, some days you're out in the mud for 6 to 7 days without a bath, with hardly any water, and you get pretty raunchy. Then they pull an inspection and ask you why you don't have starched fatigues and spitshine boots. Then they have foot and wall locker inspection, inspection in ranks and four formations a day, one at 6 a.m., 7, 12, and 5:30. This is in a combat zone. And you're not allowed to have any ammunition in your pouch, or any weapons. They're supposed to be locked up in the arms room. You can't have even a knife, so if you're overrun or mortared, you're helpless. They'd have you wearing handcuffs if they could. It's because the officers are afraid, because if you had too much trouble with them, you didn't see them around anymore... know what I mean?"
The Oleo Strut and the Summer of Support project in general needs help and funds. It takes at least $4,000 to open a minimal coffee house, and even at a bare subsistence of $30 a week for 4 people, you can see how the expense mounts up until the place is self-sustaining. The two other pilot projects are "Mad Anthony's" in Waynesville, Mo., near Fort Leonard Wood (which has had the distinction of being called "a rattlesnake in our midst" by the local Shriner's club and a "den of iniquity" at a Baptist revival meeting) and the "U.F.O." in Columbia, S.C., near Fort Jackson (at this writing the target of a bust last weekend for "subversion" where all men in uniform were cleared out by MPs. The original perspective was to open nine places by June 12, in all nine major places where the Army has training programs.
BUILDING-BRIDGES - The snag at present seems to be that an overburdened peace movement has overlooked its natural link to the young men who really have the most reasons to want an end to this war. The soldier, after all, suffers directly. At the same time that we fight for his right to come home to a constructive life, we must help build some bridges he can come home on.
These are the young people in the most open and changing times of their lives, accentuated by the incredible mind-fuck being placed on them. No one ever gave them credit for being able to think before, because they are the ones who didn't make it into college. Yet their potential for dealing directly with events is extremely high because they have been forced into experience very directly.
The GIs must have places to find and talk to like-minded guys, and to understanding civilians who can listen to their fears and confusions, help remove their sense of isolation. They are also the most vulnerable now. They need legal aid so they're not at the mercy of army justice.
Young John K. was sent to the army by a judge. He had been a chronic runaway from his Florida family. In spite of constant warnings, in spite of five vicious blows to the head while his group looked on, administered by his officer while John interjected "peace, brother," he is at the Strut every night. He has sworn all his energies to organizing an Andy Stapp-style servicemen's union. "I'll die before I let the Army take over my mind," he says. We are failures and frauds if we can't try to give him a place to say it in.
The Guardian, July 30, 1968.