Editor's note: This column is the first of three parts.
Once upon a time there was a young man named Joe, 18 years of age, just graduated from high school. Like most young men his age, Joe dreamed of an exciting future. It was the fall of 1949 and the draft was in effect, so he decided to secure his future and enlisted in the military. During career days just before graduation the recruiters from Albuquerque, N.M. were making their yearly visits to all the high schools in the region. The life of a soldier sounded glorious and the benefits would help build him a future. After a short tour in the military he could get a college education using the GI Bill, buy a house using a VA home loan, start a family and escape the bounds of the family farm of small town America.
He was filled with excitement and a little bit of anxiety as he said good-bye to family and friends, then boarded the bus. This bus trip would be an adventure; the farthest he had ever been was during his senior year playing baseball when the high school team played for a district title in a town 100 miles to the north in Montrose. That was a wonderful time, a doubleheader, a weekend away from home, no chores, and no worries except to play baseball.
That was when Joe realized that there was more to life than working the farm for the rest of his life.
The Greyhound bus ride to Albuquerque was long, with stops all along the reservation to pick up the Navajos needing rides to the next trading post or some lonely road that would traverse east or west into the unknown. Arriving in Albuquerque at the processing center was another adventure. Everyone seemed to be real friendly and pointed you in the right direction if you were lost. Physicals were first, then testing, orientations, signing papers and finally swearing in. During the orientations many were called out and never returned.
The next morning all the inductee's were loaded on buses and shuttled to the train station. Another adventure. This trip would last two days as it headed west out of Albuquerque towards Los Angeles and then north to Paso Robles with the final destination, Camp Roberts, Calif. The train entered a depot on the east side of the highway separated by a fence and was met by many soldiers in uniform. A tall sergeant entered the train car and started shouting at everyone to exit the train as quick as possible and form four ranks outside and do it without talking. The sergeant had a hard face and stripes running down his sleeve and a voice that boomed orders and curses that he thought only his coach and father knew but never used in front of him.
The sun had been down for hours and as they exited the train there were so many lights it seemed like day. After many commands from two other sergeants the young troops managed to form four orderly ranks and then the sergeant spoke. The words of the sergeant would ring in the young troop's ears forever: "I am your mother, I am your dad, and if it is not in the PX God did not intend for you to have it." A quick lesson on facing movements and the small platoon was off on an adventure of a lifetime, for many it would last a life time.
On the march over to the platoon's new home for the next eight weeks Joe was thinking that maybe he had made a mistake and the family farm was not such a bad idea, little did he know that everyone else was thinking the same thing. Midnight came very quickly and unknown to everyone, 5 a.m. would come quicker. The day would be spent filling out more paper work, getting more shots than he had ever had in his lifetime, issuing of uniforms, hygiene items and getting a hair cut from a barber that thought he was a comedian.
The next eight weeks of training would be very intense. Marching to rifle ranges for target practice, physical training before each meal, cleaning the barracks morning noon and night, preparing uniforms and boots for the next day and very little sleep. After four weeks the platoon was taking on the appearance of a well oiled machine. The cadre of officers and sergeants had just been informed that the problems in Korea were escalating and there was a great possibility that war may be in the near future. U.S. forces were preparing for deployment, the fate and future of these young men as well as Joe's was uncertain. Robert Valencia is a retired Army Sergeant First Class, a member of the American Legion, the Disabled American Veterans of Foreign Wars. He can be reached at 560-1891. Please tune in to Veterans Forum at 8:30 a.m. the last Friday of the month on KSJD 90.5 FM radio.