Vincent Tirolo, Vietnam veteran
Brooklyn, New York, US
I was a 1966 civil engineering graduate of the City College of New York. I had taken ROTC at CCNY so I was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in the Army Corps of Engineers. Colin Powell graduated from the same ROTC program 6 years earlier. He was a DMS (Distinguished Miltary Student) was was offered a commission in the Regular Army. However, most of us were undistinguished and were commissioned in the US ARMY Reserves. Prior to Vietnam graduating with a commission in the USAR was OK. You were going to get drafted anyway so why not spend two years as an officer, usually assigned to Germany, than two years as an enlisted man assigned to god knows where. Both my bothers had been drafted and they concurred with my choice. Unfortunately, after 1965 most ROTC graduates went east rather than west.
Being a ROTC graduate from City College gave you an interesting perspective. Most of us were socialistic or at least left of center. After all CCNY was nicknamed "the little red school house" in the 1930s. Most of us came from working class famililies and were the first of our family to graduate from college. Ironically we where against the war(we had all read Fall and others) but identified more with the GIs than with the protesters although my wife Mary marched on Pentagon in 1967 and I participated in a couple of marches on Washington after my return from Nam in 1968.
My first experience with the mysterious ways of the US Army occurred when as a newly commissioned 2nd Lieutenant I was sent to Ft. Belvior, VA for the "Engineer Officer Basic Course". I was in a class of 80 newly commissioned "engineer" officers, or at least so I thought. The major in charge of or class asked us to raise are hands if we had graduated with an engineering degree. Only 4 of us did! It seems ROTC graduates were required to select one combat branch prior to receiving their commisions, e.g. Infantry, Armor, Artillery, Corps of Engineers or Signal Corps. To avoid being assigned to a combat branch many picked Corps of Engineers on the assumption the the Army wouldn't be foolish enough to assign a History, English majors etc to be engineers. After all didn't you need to be proficient in calculus, engineering mechnaics and so on. But that was before they understood the the Army works in stange and mysterious ways. It believes it can train anyone in 8 weeks in any field it is short of personnel in. Now I think of the engineers that fought in WWII, removing obstructions and breeching the Nazi's Atlantic Wall in Normandy, or keeping the bridge of the Rhine River at Ramagen up with baling wire until to eventually collapsed or the SeaBees building those airstrips across the Pacific I wonder if they were all really Philosophy majors. My romantic socialistic heart wishes it were true but I sure they were not. During Vietnam engineering graduates were able to get draft deferments if they worked on government sponsored projects such as the National Defense Highway System. When I was in Vietnam I was always comforted by knowing that if the Viet cong attacked New York City we could respond quicked by moving our tanks along the Long Island Expressway.
Once I got to Vietnam I was assigned as an AssistanT Operations Officer for the 79th Engineer group in Long Binh outside of Saigon (or is it Ho Chi Min City ?). We had four engineer battalions operating in III Corps. Except for weekly "business trips" to constructions site at places like Chu Chi or Tan Nhi, I spent my year in Vietnam at a desk "commanding" a squad of drafted engineers and architects. we designed facilities such as hangers, roadways, command centers. Ironically most of the trops in Vietnam performed support functions for the infantry. When i was in Vietnam from September 1967 thru August 1968 there were 500,000+ troops in country. Of these 80-85% were support troops who most often than not were never really in harms way except for an occasional rocket attack or during Tet in Jan 1968. But we all had a 12 month tour of duty. It just wasn't fair and I have felt guilty about it ever since. during the Korean War you rotated back to the states on a point system based on branch of service, proximity to the front etc. Why was that system abandoned during Vietnam. Except that, the Army works in stange and mysterious ways.
A final note about guilt. Sure the army was absurd but Vietnam wasn't funny. Most of the GIs I worked with, met in the field, PX or on RR were just kids. Mostly poor kids who were drafted right out of high school. I have always felt guilty because my education resulted in me having a relatively easy time in Vietnam. That's probably why I am so sensitive about what people did during that war. Whenever I meet someone 45-55 years old I always wonder what they did during "the war". I feel so smugly superior if I learn they had a draft deferred job or had been in the National Guard or Army Reserves. In reality it's my CCNY latent socialistic guilt in not really sharing in the suffering with my fellow working class Americans in what may have been the defining experience of our lives. I'm hardly a radical now. I'm a middle aged, middle class, chief engineer of a construction company but I still feel that guilt almost every day.