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101st Airborne Division Patch
In 1975, at age eighteen, I joined the U.S. Army. The whole enlistment process was rushed and demanded many decisions. But in the end, I left the Denver enlistment center thinking I was going to be a helicopter crewman with a great new career awaiting me. However, as fate would have it, I unknowingly enlisted not for Army aviation, but for a school of hard knocks that taught me one of life’s great truths.
Six months later I arrived at my first assignment: D company 1/501st Infantry Battalion (Geronimo). Although I rode around in lots of helicopters my actual job was a Redeye Gunner; to shoot down enemy aircraft with shoulder fired weapons. So much for my best laid plans. That was as close as I ever came to being a helicopter crewman.
The 101st Airborne Division had returned from Vietnam a few years before, having distinguished themselves by serving longer in country than any other division. It was a unit in transition during a time of military downsizing. The group who seemed to run the division was the double eagles. This all male club was comprised of officers and sergeants who had served in the 101st in Vietnam. Many of them had been there two and three times. They wore the “Screaming Eagle” unit patch on both shoulders; left for present duty, right for combat service, hence the double eagle moniker. These double eagles were more often than not bona fide war heroes. Our brigade commander was Colonel Colin Powell. My company commander was combat-promoted from sergeant to lieutenant and now ran the company. One of the first sergeants had the Medal of Honor. And my squad leader, Sergeant Yoki, had a Silver Star and a Purple Heart for gallantry. These men also had nothing but contempt for me and the other new replacements in Delta Company.
Their contempt was manifested almost every day with “initiations.” These initiations were nothing more than controlled beatings. If there wasn’t anything else to do, and I hadn’t already been initiated that day, they caught me and administered punches to the chest, shoulders, and thighs. I couldn’t understand why they disliked me, why the alienation and hostility despite my best efforts. I went to their hard schools, followed orders, made all their training exercises, but still I was unwelcome, viewed contemptible, and doomed to ostracism.
One Saturday night, four of us went downtown to Sandy’s Speak Easy for a few beers and pool. The evening passed uneventfully until a conflict developed between Tommy Gunn and a group of bikers. The incident, probably over nothing really, escalated to the bikers shouting threats that they would be waiting for us outside. By closing time we had nearly forgotten about the earlier fracas. However, when we left we stumbled into a hornets’ nest. Ten very drunk and enraged bikers were waiting for us.
Tommy, never one to walk away, took one biker to the ground and did a number on his face. But before he could recover, four more were on him kicking and hitting with helmets. I quickly looked around and the other two soldiers had vanished; meanwhile the bikers were really punishing Tommy. It looked like he might be killed. So, I thought to myself this is really going to hurt, and jumped into the fray. I am not a good fighter and everyone there was larger and better armed. Still, I was enough of a diversion to get Tommy up and get our backs to a car. The fight paused and I noticed both of the ghost soldiers were now sitting in the car, staring straight ahead in a self imposed coma, refusing to acknowledge the ongoing fight all around their car. Somehow, we managed to get them to unlock the doors so we could climb in and get out of there.
The rest of the night is a blur, but we did get Tommy to the hospital and then back to the barracks before dawn. Tommy was going to be all right in a week. I was luckier as it seemed like I had only endured an extra special initiation.
Sunday morning I woke up to half a dozen double eagles, standing in a semi-circle around my bunk. I thought to myself, oh come on guys I can’t do another beating. This is too much. But this time was different. They were all smiling down at me and just enjoying the moment. Then Osborne sat down on my bunk, grabbed me by my sore chin and wiggled it a little and said, “You are alright,” and they left.
That was the end of my initiations. I was in. No more contempt and ugly looks. For the first time ever, when I sat down to eat in the mess hall, I wasn’t harassed and shunned. They asked me to eat at their table. I was invited into their discussions and could laugh at their jokes. As a nineteen year old, I didn’t understand why but I sure was happy they finally accepted me.
Hindsight is 20/20: life has taught me why the double eagles treated me the way they did. Those men had lived on the point of a bayonet in Vietnam, had suffered, seen death and shed blood many times. So for them, it was all about heart and the truth. They had to know the truth: who would fight and who would run. They had to know if I had the heart to stay when it got ugly, when someone was wounded or the fight went badly, even if it meant we might die. Until then I wasn’t real, and certainly wasn’t trustworthy. There was no truth to the uniform and beret I wore.
Jesus said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15). This great truth highlights the fact that every one of us, sooner or later, needs this question answered: Do you have the courage to stand with me? Will you—my spouse, my friend, or neighbor—stand with me when I am broke and depressed, without hope? Will you be there for me when I am old and my health and beauty are gone? What about when I have cancer or become an alcoholic, will you support me then? Do you have the love and courage to hold my hand the day I die, that I will not die alone? More so, will I have the courage to be there for you? It is a tough question and part of the human condition. To be selfless and have the courage to be there for the fallen person is a priceless gift that speaks to the very nature of God Almighty.
© Copyright James Cressler, Sep 2010