04 October 2004

Good Soldier Outlier: Dregs in the Military

I entered the Army during the era of Project 100,000 (1966-1971), an attempt to enlist the military as a tool of President Johnson's War on Poverty--and vice versa. I would call it Project Cannonfodder, but the number 1 Google hit for that term bears the discouraging subtitle, Preparing Teachers for Public Schools. (Does that mean that our nation's public school systems now offer less opportunity for personal growth and career advancement than our nation's military? I can believe it.)

Under Project 100,000, entrance standards were lowered in order to enable more people to qualify for the military. As Secretary of Defense McNamara declared in a speech before the Veterans of Foreign Wars in August 1966:
The poor of America have not had the opportunity to earn their fair share of this Nation's abundance, but they can be given an opportunity to serve in their Country's defense, and they can be given an opportunity to return to civilian life with skills and aptitudes which for them and their families will reverse the downward spiral of human decay.
As a result,
By [1971], 354,000 L/A ["Low Aptitude"] men had entered the Services under the program. Of these, 54% were volunteers and 46% were draftees. The men who entered under P/100000 were on average 20 years of age, about half came from the South, and a substantial proportion (about 41%) were minorities. The average reading ability of these men was at the 6th grade level with 13% reading below the 4th grade level.
In my Basic Training squad in 1969, there was a trucker from Richmond named Bragg who was blind in one eye and deaf in one ear, but nevertheless a good, responsible soldier. Another soldier whose name I've forgotten was so exceedingly dimwitted that he had to be reminded to shower and change his clothes.

In the 95th Civil Affairs Group at Ft. Gordon, GA, two New Yorkers back from Vietnam had been juvenile delinquents. At age 17, they were each given the choice between the Army or Riker's Island. They chose the Army, and they both ended up in Vietnam, where they discovered the dope to be far superior to what they could get in the States. O'Neill, from Queen's, hoped to join New York's finest, but Carter chose to go back to Vietnam's finer grade of heroin.

A follow-up program, Project Transition, was founded in late 1967 in order to help the survivors of Project 100,000 make a transition back into the civilian workforce. I signed up for Cement Masonry under Project Transition when I was getting close to the end of my term of service (ETS date) toward the end of 1971. I picked Cement Masonry because it lasted the longest, 6 weeks (if I remember correctly). One of my fellow cement masonry classmates was a Nicaraguan journalist who spent his time in the U.S. Army as a cook because his English was so limited. Unfortunately, neither of us stood much chance of qualifying for membership in any construction union.

By that time, my Civil Affairs unit had moved to Ft. Bragg, and I was transferred to Ft. Gordon's Personnel Control Facility (PCF), where I met a different class of Project 100,000 alumni. My job was to escort soldiers in penal custody to the mess hall, to the clinic, or to military courts. Most had just come back from being AWOL, and some had been turned in by their local sheriffs, who were said to collect a bounty from the military. If you went AWOL 3 times for a period of at least 30 days each, you could qualify for a dishonorable discharge for desertion--a surprisingly popular goal. It might take longer than getting three purple hearts to get out of a combat zone, but it was a safer alternative.

I was generally the last of those on duty to volunteer to escort prisoners because I was usually engrossed in a book. My comrades were bored and eager to take a walk. But I remember once accompanying a prisoner to face an officer who tried to convince him that, no matter how much he hated the Army, he would do better to finish his term of service than to keep going AWOL. To make his point, the officer turned to me and asked, "Outlier, do you like the Army?" I replied, "Not at all, sir!" Whereupon he turned to my prisoner, "See? Outlier hates the Army as much as you do, but he's done his duty and will get out sooner than you will." Somehow, I doubt my example impressed him all that much.

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