I graduated from the University of Texas in 1962 with a degree in chemistry at the age of nineteen. A military draft was in effect and it was hard to find work because employers were only hiring young men who had completed their military service or had a deferment from the Selective Service System. I was too young and I did not have work experience. If I got drafted, my life could be interrupted at any moment, I would have to serve two years, and I would probably end up in the infantry doing something unpleasant. If I volunteered, I would have to serve three years instead of two, but I could choose my Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) and I would go to school to train for my specialty. I decided to join the Army to fulfill my military obligation, to get a little bit older, and hopefully, to get some experience.
I was sent to Fort Polk, Louisiana for basic training and I was later assigned to the 24th Evacuation Hospital at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. Fort Sam Houston is located in San Antonio close to many points of interest such as the Alamo and the famous Riverwalk which is a network of walkways along the banks of the San Antonio River featuring a multitude of restaurants and shops.
After a time of orientation at Fort Sam Houston, which included a lot of marching around, I was assigned to work in a medical laboratory because of my chemistry background. I attended the Medical Field Service School (MFSS) which had a curriculum that included hematology, urinalysis, parasitology, and blood chemistry. We had to practice drawing blood on each other. We had intensive laboratory practice, and we were assigned to assist during the autopsies at the base during one week.
After I completed my training, I was assigned to work at the Brooke Army Hospital laboratory. I drew blood from servicemen and their dependents, and I worked mostly in hematology and urinalysis. I gained proficiency in blood morphology. By looking at the blood, I could identify people suffering appendicitis, anemia, leukemia, and burn victims. One time, I noticed an abnormality so severe that I contacted the doctor personally. He told me that the patient had just died. Another time, I saw a blood sample with strange, enlarged white cells. The doctor said that the blood was from one of the guard dogs. In my time in the Army, I drew blood from many of the soldiers who were being sent to Vietnam.
Army life was very predicable. At reveille, you got up, showered, shaved, and got ready for roll call. After breakfast, you went to your assigned duty. At the end of the day you would wind down by playing pool or by dressing in your civilian clothes and going off base to look for entertainment. From time-to-time, there were inspections. Everything had to be spick-and-span. Boots had to be spit shined and belt buckles and brass insignias had to be well polished. We were required to shave so that the gas masks would seal properly around our faces, but we were allowed to grow mustaches. The pictures below show me standing in a field on the way to the mess hall in front of the Women's Army Corps (WAC) building, and sitting on my bunk in the barracks. I was well tanned and lean from marching around in the sun.
Along with the medical technology training and practice, we also had military exercises. We had a warehouse stocked with mobile medical laboratory equipment. We had to pack everything, including microscopes and reagents, in sturdy metal cases. We loaded the containers on the trucks and drove in convoys to Camp Bullis, which was one of our field training camps near San Antonio. At Camp Bullis, I attended driver school to learn how to drive Jeeps on 45 degree slopes. I also learned how to use winches, and how to drive a 2-1/2 ton military truck loaded with our laboratory medical equipment and medical tents.
As the war in Vietnam started to escalate, the exercises of the 24th Evacuation Hospital became more serious. One of these training missions, called Operation "Swift Strike III", was conducted from July 21, 1963 to August 16, 1963. The purpose of this exercise was to train joint land and air teams. Our equipment and our trucks were loaded on Douglas C-124 Globemaster cargo planes at one of the air bases in San Antonio, Texas and airlifted to South Carolina. We traveled along with our trucks on folding seats that had webbed canvas backs. Our airplanes were so heavy that some of them had to accelerate down the runway twice before they gained enough air speed to lift off. The picture below shows how we ate our sack lunches during the trip.
Setting up the tents required a lot of team effort. The tents were heavy and bulky. Usually, it took six people to load and unload the tents. After unrolling them, somebody had to go underneath and set up the poles. The tents had to be held down with stakes. Once, during a heavy rain, the ground got saturated and the stakes pulled out. We ended with the tent in our faces in the middle of the night; everything got wet.
Our unit was designated to be part of the enemy combatant troops and we had to put crests on our helmets to distinguish our soldiers from the friendly forces.
Salvatore Czani was an entertaining guy who had many interesting stories. He was a Hungarian immigrant who had fought against the Russians during the occupation of Hungary. He could not move the little finger and the ring finger of his right hand. He had suffered a deep cut during some hand-to-hand combat and had not been able to get medical care for several days, so he lost use of the fingers. In this picture he was clowning around with an M-60 machine gun, an M-1 Rifle, and a dagger between his teeth. He was Rambo long before there was a Rambo.
I was discharged on August 30, 1965 after having served three years in the Army. During the last six months of my army service, I had been contacting potential employers and I had a job waiting for me at Chemical Abstracts Service in Columbus, Ohio when my service ended. The 24th Evacuation Hospital was ordered to go to Vietnam shortly after my discharge. I remember reading about it in the newspaper and breathing a sigh of relief at my good fortune. The 24th Evac Hospital started its deployment from San Antonio to Long Binh, South Vietnam in June of 1966, and by July most of the personnel had been transferred to Vietnam. The 24th Evac Hospital supported American and allied troops in Vietnam until its closure in November of 1972. Many of the soldiers who served in Vietnam were drafted and their stories tell of the emotions, frustration, patriotism, confusion, and sense of duty that they experienced during this unpopular war.
Read more about the 24th Evacuation Hospital.