Four Journalists Look Back at Their Time in the Military—What We Learned, Are We Glad We Served?

Four guys who went into journalism in the 1950s are having lunch and we realize as we’re talking that we’d all served for two or three years in the U.S. military. It seemed surprising because none of us talk much about our military service and very few of the people we’ve worked with in recent years were ever in uniform. At Gridiron dinners in Washington, which bring together many of the top people in journalism and politics, one ritual is the playing of the anthem of each military service and those who once served in that branch stand. At last year’s dinner, the Marine Band played the anthems of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines and maybe 25 of the 650 media and political elite stood at attention.

We talked at lunch about whether we were glad we’d been in the military. None of us had been in combat and none of us learned a job skill that made much difference in our lives. I went to Air Force navigation school, Bill Mead learned to send and receive Morse Code. Both jobs were replaced years ago by technology.

We did agree that going through basic training and serving with all kinds of young men from all over the country probably was good for us. When I arrived at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, I was surprised that none of the guys I lived and marched with were at all like the small town boys in Wisconsin I’d grown up with. What the hell was that music those southerners were playing on their radios? We learned to accept our differences and get along.

I also learned something that I didn’t appreciate until later in my work life: The military is a tough bureaucracy and you learn to keep your mouth shut until it’s the right time to talk. If you’re going to get ahead, you figure out how the game is being played and how you survive and maybe do well. One of the most successful Washington businessmen I knew in recent years never went to college and he credited his three years in the Air Force with giving him the confidence and savvy to deal with all kinds of people, all kinds of problems, all kinds of bureaucracy. He figured Air Force basic training and his two years overseas was the equivalent of a master’s degree.

The four of us were 11 years old when World War Two ended—I remember saving tin foil and our family buying war bonds to support the troops. The good and evil of that war seemed very clear, a lot of people sacrificed to save the free world, and we had nothing but thanks and admiration for returning soldiers. Much of that respect for the military lasted through the Korean War—we were stopping the Soviet Union and the Chinese from taking over that part of the world. And then there was the Vietnam War and all its ambiguities.

The four of us are from different parts of the country; Bill Mead is from Missouri and graduated from Northwestern; Mike Feinsilber is from Pennsylvania and graduated from Penn State; Dick Victory is from Florida and graduated from Florida State; and I was Wisconsin all the way. We agreed that the military should look much more like the country and having a decent number of college graduates—including some from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton—serving in the military might make politicians think differently about sending U.S. troops into combat.
—Jack Limpert
Mike Feinsilber served in the Army in the 1950s and then helped cover the Vietnam war for United Press International. Here’s how he remembers Saigon in 1967.

I passed young Vietnamese men idling on steps in front of shops in Saigon, smoking cigarettes, or passing time on motor scooters while walking to briefings to find out how many Americans had been killed that day. It made an impression.

When I got back home in 1967 and worked as a copy editor at UPI’s Washington bureau, every Friday afternoon the Pentagon issued a list of American soldiers who had been killed in the war. It typically carried hundreds of names. My job was to put the list into newspaper style—rank, first name, last name, age, hometown. The process took at least an hour and it was heartbreaking work. I didn’t know these men—boys really, aged 19, 20, 21, mostly from little towns all over the country—but it made me wonder what they had died for, what they would have become if given a chance to live.

It was rote work, done with a pencil in those pre-computer days, but it gave me time to think about the boy behind the name as I converted the military’s “Anderson, George S., age 19, private first class, Erie, Pennsylvania,” to a news style “Army PFC George S. Anderson, 19, of Erie, Pa.”

Did George play the trombone in his high school band? Was Harold a shy kid who used to hang out in the public library, reading Sherlock Holmes? Did George Harrison’s buddies kid him about bearing the same name as the Beatle? Was a beer the last thing Seymour put in his stomach before he was killed on patrol in the jungle? Was a kid whose name ended in III—as in Robert K.Craft III—following in the military bootsteps of Robert K. Craft, his granddad, and Robert K. Craft Jr., his father? Did Jeffrey write a letter every  day to his girlfriend back in Sheboygan?

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington carries the names of 58,195 Americans killed in Vietnam. The number of civilians and military deaths in North Vietnam, South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia has been estimated at between 1.5 million and 3.6 million.

At lunch the four of us agreed that the United States would probably not have been at war in the Mideast had the draft been in effect at the time George W. Bush invaded Iraq without an act of Congress or the consent of the American people. Many parents would not have stood for sending their sons and daughters into a war against a country which posed no clear threat to this country. That may have been the chief lesson America learned from Vietnam.

The United States had a military draft from 1940, the eve of its entry into World War Two, until 1973, the first year of Richard Nixon’s second term as President. Representative Charles Rangel, a New York Democrat and a decorated Korean War veteran who has been in Congress since 1971, has often proposed reinstating the draft. He has offered his bill in every session of Congress since 2003. Through their inaction, fellow congressmen have rejected it.

“If war is truly necessary, we should all come together in defense of our nation, not just one percent of America,” he argues. The Mideast wars are fought by luckless poor people who join the military because they can’t find jobs in civilian life, Rangel says.

“Since 2001, nearly 7,000 soldiers have paid for these wars with their lives,” he says. “The 3.3 million military households have become a virtual military class who are unfairly shouldering the brunt of war. Many men and women in uniform serve multiple tours, as many as 10, and 25 percent of America’s active duty military personnel suffer from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).”
—Mike Feinsilber
Birth years and deferments often determined who had to fight in wars and who didn’t. I finished high school in 1951 and used a college deferment to avoid being drafted during the Korean War. It was over by the time I finished college in 1955 and enlisted for the mandatory two years. I’ve kept my discharge papers marked “not eligible to serve.” Just in case.

My wife Jenny and I were glad our sons, and now our grandsons, reached military age at a time when there was no draft. Congressman Rangel is right about the draft, but, please, not my sons or grandsons!

During World War I my stepfather was an Army bugler, and then a driver in France for a colonel whose job was to find villas for the U.S. brass. His son was drafted into World War II and suffered a disabling head wound during the U.S. invasion of Italy.

I was a supply clerk, and then acting supply sergeant (without stripes) at a lackadaisical Army base on Staten Island, commuting from Greenwich Village where Jenny and I lived after marrying during my Army time. No war, not even KP. Still, I was glad to get out.
—Bill Mead
Will remain mum on military duty. If I told you what I did I would have to take you prisoner.  Will say this: I agree with Buffett—birth is a lottery. And all of us drew lucky straws.
—Dick Victory


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