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This AWOL American Life


Last year I got an intriguing message from my daughter’s former boyfriend. Call him Clancy.

He’d been entertaining his sister and brother-in-law with a tale about my Vietnam-era adventures as an anti-war draftee in the US Marine Corps. Over the years I had attempted to amuse my daughter and Clancy with absurd recollections of my time in the military. Evidently one had struck a chord.

His sister and her husband are fellow Chicagoans who’ve made it big in the Big Apple–she has a full-time gig at the New York Times, he is a producer at NPR’s legendary radio program This American Life.

Clancy’s message was this: the bro-in-law producer was looking for stories for a This American Life episode on the topic of Getting Away With It–and he had loved the anecdote. It told of my three-month AWOL from the USMC, in 1969, and how I’d played the system so that I’d walked away scot-free–no jail time, no bad discharge, not even a fine.

Talk about getting away with it!

The producer definitely wanted to interview me, and a few days later the meeting was set.

Almost immediately my mind started reeling! I knew that this could be the start of something big. Perhaps I could get my USMC experiences into some useful form, maybe even into something salable. After all, a few This American Life stories had turned into books and movies–why not mine?

I’d thought for decades about writing about my peculiar experiences as a USMC draftee. I had tried fiction and memoir without success–Tim O’Brien I am not. I had been drafted into the USMC in December 1968. Normally the Marines are an all volunteer branch, but they get draftees in time of war, even undeclared wars like Vietnam. Among the 100 guys who reported for induction that gray December morning, 10 of us were sent into the naval services, and I got shipped to the US Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, California.

I had used up my four-year college deferment, so I was draft eligible in 1967–a very hot time in the Nam (US military death count, 11,363). Because I had not graduated on time (thank you, demon rum), I appealed my notice to report for induction and was able to persuade the draft board to let me have one more year to finish my BA. But as soon as I received the deferment, along with a modest education loan, I went on a lengthy bender, waking up at various times in Mexico City and the Boyle Heights neighborhood of East Los Angeles. Needless to say, such good times–if that’s what they were–would not last forever.

When the day came to report for my induction, I had a single ace up my sleeve. I had worked construction with a Korean War vet who gave me one bit of advice. Once you get to boot camp, he said, you’ll have a whole day of testing. They use this info to assign your job classification. At some point during the testing day, there will be an announcement: Are there any movie stars here, professional athletes or other celebrities? When this happens, he said, you raise your hand and go up to the front–tell them you’re a professional writer, you worked on your college newspaper and published in literary magazines. It could make a big difference. Turns out he was spot on. It happened just as he said and I put in my bid for a writing job.

One day weeks later I was called out of ranks. A corporal from the base newspaper wanted to see me. He gave me a list of facts and had me write a news story, right there on the spot. I completed the exercise and heard nothing about it until boot camp graduation, when job assignments and duty stations were announced. Voila: my military occupational specialty (MOS) was “basic press information man” and my duty station was the USMC Air Station, El Toro, California.

Upon reporting for duty, I made an appointment to see the chaplain and announced that I would not bear arms against anybody, having political and ethical objections to the war. He sent me to the psychiatrist. After the same conversation, the psychiatrist prescribed an antidepressant and said I should notify my commanding officer. Having done so, and being mildly reprimanded, I decided I should consider high-tailing it to Canada.

For a few weeks I went to work each day in the HQ Information Services Office. We operated the base newspaper and radio station and wrote press releases for the home-town newspapers of marines who received medals. As some wag put it: I had the best job in the USMC.

Maybe it was too much of a good thing. Anyway, I soon hitchhiked back to Chicago and then made my way to Toronto. An anti-war professor had offered me his empty apartment for the summer. The next day I met with an anti-war lawyer, to discuss becoming a Canadian citizen. To my horror I discovered that I was absolutely not a candidate for “landed-immigrant status”, the requirement for staying in Canada permanently–because of a misdemeanor arrest and conviction that happened during a drunken spree a few months earlier. Maybe I needed to join an alcohol treatment program. But for the moment, the lawyer advised, I had no choice but to return to the USMC in order to resolve the AWOL situation.

Once I got back to El Toro, the information office didn’t want me back–obviously I was not good PR material. Moreover, during the processing interview with the legal officer, where he was trying to get the facts of my case, when and why I’d gone AWOL, etc., I smarted off–which landed me in the brig for three days. Upon my release, he finished the interview, listed the charges I’d be facing, and, amazingly, offered me a job as his legal clerk. His former clerk’s enlistment was up and there was an opening. Since I had already decided to finish out my hitch as best I could, I accepted without a second thought.

My duties in the legal office consisted mainly of typing charge sheets for marines accused of all sorts of crimes, from disobeying an order, to being intoxicated on duty, to being AWOL, which was the most common infraction. I got to know the commanding officer and the sergeant-major, who handled non-judicial punishments, as well as the base lawyers, who served as counsel and judges for more serious cases and courts-martial.

As the weeks passed, I settled into the life of a regular marine, though because I’d been AWOL for more than 30 days, I was technically a deserter and looking forward to a court-martial. But the more I got to know and work with the people who would be my judge and jury, it seemed like the less threatening the whole thing started to feel.

For one thing, I was a crackerjack clerk and being a friendly sort, I soon made friends but with the rest of the marines in the admin building–the records department people, the training sergeant, the recruiter, the mailroom guy, and especially the sergeant-major, whose office was across from mine and who became a good friend.

If an enlisted man fucked up, the first person he saw for possible punishment was the sergeant-major, who took him or her through the initial phase, either toward non-judicial punishment (the commanding officer was judge and jury) or to a court-martial. He and I worked together formally and informally. The sergeant-major confided to me that in “the Old Corps” people didn’t waste time with all the legal formalities. The sergeant-major could and did take the fuck-up to “the woodshed” for a brief hiding, and that was the end of it. Which was especially nice because that way, your permanent record was not dinged.

Almost as soon as I started as legal clerk I was casually approached by a sergeant who worked in the PX and was under investigation for embezzlement. He asked me to let him know if I heard anything about his case–of course, I said, sure, no problem. He said he’d be really grateful. In the end he bribed one of my USMC lawyer friends, who was the investigating officer of his case, and though guilty as they come he was fully exonerated.

I’d already experienced hanky panky, in bootcamp. Turned out that my company’s head drill instructor had lost his California driver’s license–too many DUI convictions. When he found out that my dad was a Chicago cop, he asked whether my dad could get him an under-the-table Illinois driver’s license. In Chicago anything is possible for the right price, especially with a cop’s clout. I’d told him I’d check, and I strung him along until the end of boot camp. But I never delivered. Not only was he a prick in general, but he was obsessed with winning the drill pennant, like Lieutenant Scheisskopf in Catch-22, which led to needless unpleasantness.

As to my own court-martial, because I was an insider I got terrific legal advice and an excellent plea bargain–if I copped to the desertion charges, I’d be guaranteed no jail time, no bad conduct discharge, and only fines as the court allowed. At the pro forma court-martial, the legal officer testified as a character witness, as did the office receptionist. The judge assessed a heavy fine, but the commanding officer, who was the reviewing authority, reduced it to a couple hundred bucks. I never saw anyone else afforded this kind of treatment. Like everywhere else, people like to take care of their own.

A final irony: one of my duties as legal clerk was to process the paperwork after a court-martial, doing the record keeping and the like. After the commanding officer reviewed the judgment in my case and reduced the fine, I got the papers that were to be forwarded to payroll, so that the fines would be deducted from my pay. Somehow or other the payroll department never received the paperwork. Maybe lost in the mail?

These memories were churning as I anticipated the meeting with the producer.

He arrived and unspooled his equipment and hung around for three hours, asking me everything about the AWOL story and the court martial follow-up, as well as my thoughts about being drafted into the Marine Corps in 1968, my efforts to get released, my thoughts about the war, and what I narrated above. He said there was an excellent chance they’d run the story. My expectations were shooting through the roof.

I kept in touch with the producer, and he said the story was edited and looked like a “go”.

Two months later, however, upon listening to the program, I discovered I’d been bumped–the story was not broadcast. To complicate matters, I phoned my daughter with the bad news, and she said, “Dad, I just heard a promo for the show, [it’s broadcast at a different time in her town] and they’re using a quote from your interview–they’re advertising your piece and definitely using it.”

Alas the promo was a glitch–they didn’t broadcast the story.

I was pretty pissed. I contacted the producer, but he was unhelpful–the story got bumped and that was that. Moreover, they wouldn’t be using it in future. No explanation, though interestingly Ira Glass, the program’s star, did all the stories that night. I am guessing he pre-empted mine, though it’s only a guess.

I decided to ask the producer for a copy of the interview, to hear how it all might have sounded had the piece run. It took him months and a bucketful of excuses before I received a DVD+R. As luck would have it, it wouldn’t play on my old computer, which couldn’t handle compressed files.

PATRICK O’HAYER can be reached at


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