by Charles Heusel
I finished my college coursework in January, 1967, which bumped my Selective Service classification from deferred to 1-A, with a draft date of April 15.
I hoped to be a newspaper reporter, but discovered that finding any type of employment after graduating was almost impossible. Understandably, no one was going to invest time and resources in hiring and training a person with an 1-A draft classification, only to lose him to the military for the next two years. This left only temporary jobs available for those graduates fortunate enough to find them.
Faced with this untenable prospect, I thought ‘Screw it all!’ I would determine my own future instead of leaving it to the Draft Board. I considered all the services then chose the Army’s Officer Candidate School program for recent college graduates.
I enlisted on March 31. The war in Viet Nam was raging at a fever pitch and my folks were concerned. My father, a WWII Navy vet, knew something about the service but not so my mom.
Although not my biggest worry at the time, my mother expressed concern about my university graduation in June and whether I would be able to attend.
I didn’t talk much about the subject. With my enlistment approaching, graduation ceremonies were the last thing on my mind.
After my swearing in at Manhattan’s Whitehall Street, there followed in very short order Basic Training at Ft. Dix, N.J. and Advanced Individual Training (AIT) at Ft. McLennan, Alabama where the summer weather was hot and humid, just like Vietnam.
Many of the cadre in AIT consisted of sergeants who had previously served at least one tour in Nam. One was from an air cavalry unit involved in the hard-fought battle of the Ia Drang Valley in 1965, the first engagement pitting elements of the North Vietnamese Army against US forces. The good sergeant taught us a class on field radio operations, vividly using accounts of his own harrowing combat experiences. He impressed upon us the importance of using proper radio communication procedures to survive against overwhelming enemy forces. The instructors taught us effective patrolling techniques and how to communicate with hand signals, set up ambushes, employ proper camouflage techniques and exit armored personnel carriers during fire fights.
While at McLennan I received a letter from my mother informing me that the university had mailed her tickets inviting the family to my graduation exercise in June. Could I possibly take time off to attend? she asked. I wrote her and explained as gently as possible that we were in the middle of important training. Moreover, in Basic, about twenty of us enlistees with similar civilian backgrounds had bonded into a fairly close-knit group. Leaving temporarily, as my mother had requested, would have risked my being recycled into a new training group to make up for the missing classes, something I was not about to do. I tried to reassure her and promised that I would attend some future graduation ceremony at the university when I finished my military service – something that I actually did in 1970, after my discharge from the Army.
This didn’t go down well with her at all and my letter was poorly received.
I heard nothing more on the subject until one morning some days later. While standing in company formation, we all noticed a scowling Master Sergeant Daley come out of the orderly room.
“Where’s Heusel?” he demanded.
Warily, I raised my hand. “Come with me!” he roared.
Daley turned and made his way back into the orderly room. I followed. Out of the corner of his mouth he muttered: “Doesn’t your mother know anything about the chain of command?”
At this point, I had no idea what he was talking about but a sense of alarm rapidly grew within me.
The First Sergeant sat at his desk holding a telephone receiver and looking a little pissed off. He handed me the phone. “This major from the Pentagon wants to talk with you,” he said.
I felt real panic building now, having never been involved with the Pentagon, much less spoken with any majors.
“Private Heusel” the major started.
“Yes sir,” I replied uncertainly.
“Your mother recently sent a letter to the White House containing an invitation to your college graduation. She addressed it to President Johnson and included in the correspondence this note:
‘Here’s our invitation to my son’s graduation. Obviously, since we can’t use them, you use them.’
“The White House passed the matter on to us to handle,” the major said. “I want you to call your mother and explain why you can’t make this event. Understand?”
“Don’t upset her any more than she is, but explain your situation and why this is a very inconvenient time to miss training, understand?”
I had to borrow money from the company’s Executive Officer to make the call home to my family using the public phone down by one of the post’s PXes.
When I finally got through, only my father was home, my Mom having gone out shopping. I explained what had occurred and he confessed that he knew nothing about it but assured me that he’d give her the message when she returned. I insisted he tell her no harm ad been done. He said he’d give her the message.
Wanting to make sure that she didn’t get the wrong idea and worry herself unnecessarily, I called again later. It was a good thing I did.
My Dad was a great guy but was recognized as a terrible message deliverer. Sure enough, how he conveyed my call left Mom frantic with worry. I reassured her that no harm had been done and she sounded relieved. When I reemphasized the impossibility of making the graduation commencement but promised her to make the next scheduled ceremony after the Army, she sounded mollified and more accepting. Most of all, she sounded relieved that her letter had caused no trouble.
I told her I loved her for what she had done. A South Bronx housewife and mother of three, she had single-handedly made her voice heard and her opinions known to the most powerful man in the country. Such an individual, I felt, was worthy of the greatest respect and I was very proud of her.
To round out the experience, I earned the nickname “Presidents’ Man” by all the cadre of the company for the rest of the training cycle.
All things considered, not a bad title.