There must be some kind of way out of here
Said the joker to the thief…
— Bob Dylan
Christmas 1970: a hot meal in a muddy fox hole, a Red Cross gift of WD 40. Excellent for cleaning my M16. Thank you, Jesus.
After nine months as an infantry medic, three on fire bases burning human waste, an R&R with a Japanese whore who crushed my virginity to rice paper pulp, it was time to head home.
At Bien Hoi, wearing fresh khakis, spit shined shoes, polished brass, I met men not seen in a year, some with a far-away look in their eyes, combat ribbons on their chests. We made small talk, waited, finally boarded a large commercial jet. The long flight so different from the first, when scores of men drank and flirted with slim-hipped stewardesses, sunk into oblivion, woke to Vietnam. This time, we landed at Oakland Air Force Base, silently walked past recruits headed the other way. I bought a cheap plane ticket to Jersey. A high-heeled flight attendant winked at me but I was too shocked out to flirt.
The cab home took twenty-five minutes and cost six dollars. I never liked my folks. But we said our hello’s and my dog jumped for joy which made me happy.
“This is our son,” the folks would say to friends and strangers, “He’s been to Vietnam. He was a medic.” But they never asked about the startle reflex, the sudden rage, the vivid nightmares, the jungle rot swirling inside my head.
A month later I reported to Fort Devens to complete my enlistment. No chip on the shoulder, no Travis Bickle “Are you talking to me?” psycho-bravura. I just couldn’t hack it.
“Sorry,” I said to the first sergeant. “I don’t pull guard duty.”
“You what?” he asked, stupefied.
“Nothing personal. I just don’t.”
“You got thirty minutes,” he scowled, “You’d best be ready.” And he stormed out the barrack.
I packed an AWOL bag, put on jeans, sneakers, a sweatshirt, my army field jacket. Lay back in bed.
“What the…Where the hell do you think you’re going?” the first sergeant asked as I got up.
“AWOL, Sarge. I don’t pull guard.”
He looked at me strange. “You can’t do that. Are you out of your mind?”
“Watch me,” I said. “Going to Boston. Back in a few days.”
I walked out, caught a bus, two hours later had a ten dollar hotel room, went to a porn theater, jerked off, the next day ate good, slept good, walked the town, returned to base that night.
“Greetings,” I said to the company clerk.
“You’re up for an Article 15,” he snarled.
“Sounds good to me,” I said. Non judicial punishment meant nothing to this GI.
For the next six months I refused guard duty, KP, haircuts, did not salute officers. Deliberately failed a driving test.
“Stop sign! Stop sign! Step on the brakes!” a lieutenant shouted.
I stepped on the gas.
“Green means go! GO, you moron!”
I stepped on the brakes.
Over time I racked up five Article 15s and one Summary Court Martial. The company commander assigned me to burly Sgt. K, who had three Silver Stars and hounded me on clean up details.
“Are you gonna work or do you want a knuckle sandwich?” he asked.
I ignored the good sergeant, left the sweltering warehouse, sat down in a field, and sang “The Answer Is Blowing In The Wind.”
Sgt. K called the battalion commander, the company commander, the first sergeant.
“What the fuck is he doing?” they asked.
“I don’t eat knuckle sandwiches,” I said.
“Now hold on a minute, son. What’s the problem?” asked the battalion commander, a friendly alcoholic.
“Sir, I just want out of the Army.”
“I can’t help you there, boy. Just do your duty. Otherwise I’ll have to…”
Thank god for the Common Sense Book Store, an off base GI coffee house. With other soldiers I wrote bad poetry in a workshop lead by an anti-war English professor. We spoke to newspaper reporters. Organized Radio Free Devens, broadcast weekly by WAAF in Worcester, Mass. Shook hands with Dan Ellsberg on TV.
Restricted to base, I filed for Conscientious Objector status. Denied, I wrote to my congressman but nothing happened. Time to go up the Army chain of command. After two hard months I reached the top.
“Sir, Private Levy reporting to see the General,” I said to a clean cut captain seated behind a metal desk.
By now my hair was shoulder length; my garrison cap slipped off my head. The captain phoned the commander of Fort Devens, who sat in the room next door.
A moment later he slammed down the phone. “The General can’t see you today.”
“But I have an appointment. I’m Private Levy,” I said, garrison cap in hand. “I’m trying to get out of the Army.”
The captain’s face brightened. He pounded the desk with his fist. “I don’t think you get it, bud. The General will not see you. Now get the fuck out.”
He really said that. “Get the fuck out.”
Three weeks later an officer approached as I headed for chow.
“Sign here, we’ll give you a Bad Conduct Discharge. You’ll be out in a week,” he smiled.
“No thanks,” I said. “I’m better off being court-martialed.”
He was stunned. I was hungry. The food was great.
A week later a full colonel threw me out of JAG.
“You can’t do that, sir. The battalion commander put me up for a Special court martial. I’m here to see my lawyer.”
“You’re a fucking disgrace,” he said, and grabbed my shoulders and hustled me out. He really said that, “A fucking disgrace.”
I went to the IG’s office down the block.
“What can I do for you, soldier?” the Inspector General asked.
A heavy set man, he sat with his legs propped on his desk.
“Sir, the colonel just threw me out of JAG,” I said, and told him my plight.
In my dress uniform and an Army baseball cap I’d decorated with an officer’s rank and gold trim, the IG looked me over, lit a cigar, took a long drag, exhaled a noxious plume. “I’ll look into it,” he said.
“Thank you, Sir,” I replied.
Back at company HQ the commanding officer screamed, “The IG just chewed my ass out! Did you complain about the colonel?”
“Sir, I’m Private Levy. I have a right to legal counsel.”
“Get the fuck out of here,” he said. “You heard me. Get the fuck out!”
Friends at the Common Sense Book Store contacted a civilian lawyer. I celebrated by going AWOL.
“Where are you, Doc?”
“Why?” he asked.
“It’s my birthday. I’m twenty-one.”
“Look,” said Stan. “They want to give you three months hard labor and a Dishonorable Discharge. I pulled some strings. Plead guilty, you’ll do five days in jail and get a General Discharge.”
I looked at my dog. My dog looked at me.
“I don’t know, Stan. What do you think?”
“If I were you, Doc, I’d take it,” he said.
“OK. See you soon.”
We met in an empty JAG office. Two stacks of paper lay on a wood desk. One pile had copies of my case. The other, a General court martial for statutory rape. The accused was Sergeant K.
After two hours in court, five officers found me guilty on all charges and pronounced sentence as Stan predicted. Before two MPs grabbed my arms and lead me away, the court secretary, a good looking brunette, slipped me a hit of Speed.
In the stockade barbershop, an MP asked, “Gotta hold you down or you gonna co-operate?”
“I’ll co-operate,” I said.
He knocked my baseball cap off my head. A barber cut my hair. When the MP left a photographer took my picture with a Polaroid. When he and the barber stepped out, I pocketed the photos and gave the Speed to another prisoner.
“Here,” I said. “I don’t want this. It’ll drive me crazy.”
After five days I was let out of jail. It took two weeks to process my paperwork. Stan forgot to tell me I’d be busted to buck private and lose a month’s pay. Nearly broke, I packed my duffel bag, said good bye to Devens, started hitching to Boston. A car pulled over.
“Need a lift?” asked the court secretary.
The next morning, after one last fondle and a fond farewell, I began the long trip home.
MARC LEVY served with Delta Company 1/7 First Cavalry as an infantry medic in Vietnam and Cambodia in 1970. His decorations include the Combat Medic Badge, Silver Star, two Bronze Stars for Valor, Air Medal, Army Commendation Medal. He was courtmartialed twice and received a General Discharge. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org