It’s being widely reported that Trump has called soldiers, airmen, marines and sailors killed and/or wounded in action “losers” and “suckers.” But, this rhetoric is not new or out of character for this obvious coward. Long before his current disparagement of all who, for whatever reason, put their lives on the line for this nation-state, this small and, again, cowardly man has never hidden his putrid opinion of the US military.
In a December 3, 2019 column in the Washington Post, writer Max Boot noted that Trump once called his “ability” to avoid sexually transmitted diseases “my personal Vietnam,” and that by outsmarting, that is, staying at least a step ahead of the gonorrhea and syphilis viruses (the AIDS virus had not yet appeared when he made these disgusting comments), made him “feel like a great and very brave soldier.” Boot entitled his piece “Trump is the Most Anti-Military President We’ve Had…”
On July 9, 1970, I enlisted in the United States Navy. I had just turned 21 in April, and had also dropped out of Indiana University in 1969. I left school because I could no longer concentrate on academic pursuits. I was still grieving, deeply depressed and despondent over the brutal murder of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in ‘68.
Eventually, and with excellent 20–20 hindsight, of course, I came to realize that dropping out of college was the very last thing, the very worst thing, that Dr. King would have wanted me, a young black man, to do at that time — or at any time, for that matter. [I describe exactly what was happening on campus that awful night, April 4, 1968, and how I learned of Dr. King’s assassination, its immediate effect on me, and my fellow black and white students here.]
And so, I got a job as a dispatcher for a national long-haul trucking company headquartered in downtown Chicago….a great job, especially since it paid almost $15,000 a year, which at that time was considered “big money.” Also, the innovative work schedule seemed tailor-made for me: Rotating three-man crews of dispatchers worked three straight twelve-hour shifts and then had the next four days off. The following week, we would work four straight twelve-hour shifts and then have the next three days off. Sweet.
But, as “luck” would have it (or maybe fate), after only a few months, the truck drivers went on strike. After thirty days, the company was forced to begin laying-off its workforce, starting with…you guessed it…dispatchers.
After a long, dogged and sometimes frantic search, I still could not find another job. So I moved back to Indiana with my parents. And so, there I was: No degree. No job. No car. A young, single black man with no immediate “prospects”…and, once again, living with my parents.
I soon received the US Army’s infamous “Greetings,” you know, that cryptic missive informing you that you had been “selected” by the “United States Selective Service” to report for duty in the US Army. And a guy absolutely must do so within thirty days — or else.
The war in Vietnam was raging and at its bloody height. Indeed, it had expanded into Cambodia, and more and more troops were being called up and sent over and into that meat grinder. At the same time, of course, there were massive civilian protests against that war, spearheaded by students. I, of course, sided with the protesters, and had long ago decided that I would not, under any circumstances, allow myself to be sent to Vietnam. In fact, I had participated in, and even helped organize many of those marches and demonstrations on campus. Indeed, I fully and completely agreed with the defrocked world heavyweight boxing champion at that time, Muhammad Ali, when he refused to be drafted on religious grounds, and declared that, “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Viet Cong. Ain’t no Viet Cong ever called me nigger!”
Fathers Matter — Big Hub versus Fred Trump
My father (“Big Hub” — 1922–1989) and I sat at our kitchen table one Sunday morning and discussed my “situation.” Although he himself had not participated in the “D-Day” invasion of Europe, he later had been a combat infantryman in France during World War II. With the very real prospect of combat now staring his oldest son in the face, Big Hub explained what I could expect should I enter the Army as a lowly private. But not before he verbally chastised me (again) for not staying in school, saying that had I done so, I could at least have entered the service as an officer.
Big Hub weighed my options for me: I could submit to the draft and almost certainly be sent to the war where I might be killed or wounded — or worse in my view, kill or wound someone else.
I could defect to Canada, he said, as had thousands of young men my age were doing. However, Dad allowed that should I remove to Canada, I would probably never see him or any of my family again, because I would never be allowed back into the US, and, as he put it, “I ain’t going way up there to that cold-ass country.”
Or…I could join another branch of the military, one which was not doing any actual fighting and killing and dying in ‘Nam.
Well, I thought, the Air Force was interesting, except that unless you were a pilot, in those days one usually did not leave the country. And I wanted to travel.
As has been widely reported, Donald Trump never had to face this life-changing decision. His father, Fred Trump, rich, white Fred Trump, “arranged” at least one of his son’s five deferments through an accommodating (some reports say paid off) doctor who vouchsafed Trump’s now-infamous foot problem (bone spurs) — although today, he cannot seem to remember which foot had the ailment.
‘Join The Navy And See The World’
Judging from Walter Cronkite’s daily televised “Evening News”, newspaper and magazine reports (no Internet or “social media” back then), the Navy did not seem to have a heavy presence in Vietnam. And the Navy traveled all over the world.
And so, I returned to Chicago, and presented myself at the Navy Recruiting Office on Randolph Street. They offered me the choice of doing boot camp in either San Diego or Great Lakes Naval Station just north of Chicago. Again, I wanted to travel and had never been to California. They also told me that because I had three years of college under my belt, I had a decent shot at OCS (Officer Candidate’s School). So I signed on the dotted line. But not before I insisted that the recruiters promise me, in writing, that I would NEVER-NEVER, EVER-EVER, under any circumstances, be sent to Vietnam.
I did nine weeks of Boot Camp in San Diego, and then went home on furlough for thirty days to await my orders, which would include assignment to a duty station. During the last week of furlough, those orders arrived: Report back to San Diego and join the company of the good ship U.S.S. Dubuque (LPD-8), pictured above.
The Dubuque was a new ship, having been commissioned in 1967. (After forty-four years of service, she was decommissioned in 2011). She was 508 feet long, and stood 115 feet high off the water’s edge. She was an absolutely humongous, “amphibious,” troop transport ship. She carried a permanent crew of 400-plus sailors, and had room for 2,500 marines and army guys with all of their equipment. The Dubuque’s flight deck accommodated six Cobra-Class helicopters. When I first approached the ship, walking down Pier 9 in San Diego with my sea bag slung over my shoulder, I stared up in awe at this behemoth. I could not see the top of the thing. The Dubuque looked more like a three-blocks-long floating building rather than any “boat” I’d ever seen. I just knew something that big, something that heavy, could not possibly…well, it just wasn’t supposed to be able to float.
Once I had settled in over the next ten days or so, including work assignments, watches, and just generally learning the ship’s routine, our captain informed ship’s company (through the 1-MC “public address” system) that we would now begin our mission: pick up troops right here in Diego, in Long Beach, California, San Francisco, and in Seattle — and then venture forth out into the unimaginably wide and deep Pacific Ocean. It would take us four days to get to Pearl Harbor where we would dock for three days as we took on more troops and provisions, and then do a little (eight hours) of “R & R.”
And then the captain said…. our very first port of call after leaving US soil would be….you guessed it…Da Nang Harbor, South Vietnam.
Over the course of the next three and one-half years, the Dubuque made that trip five times. At the Dubuque’s top speed of 25 knots (28 MPH), it took us nineteen days to twenty-one days to cross that ocean. All the while, all we saw nothing but sky and water. You have never seen the night sky and its thousands upon thousands of stars, until you see them from the deck of a ship in the middle of the ocean. You come to realize just how small (and insignificant) you really are.
My foot never actually touched the ground in Vietnam. Our job was that of a seagoing omnibus. We would drop anchor anywhere from two to ten miles off Vietnam’s coast, and then off-load the marines and all of their equipment right into the water. We would come back six to nine months later and pick them up….what was left of them, that is. Okay, I did not walk on Vietnamese soil. But I was in a “combat zone” where real shooting was going on just a few klicks away. For that reason, I got “combat pay.”
After we dropped off the guys who were doing the real fighting, and between trips to ‘Nam, we sailed (cruised) around the Western Pacific Ocean (“WestPac” in Navalease).
Our mission? To party hearty. We regularly made port in:
- Olongopo City (Subic Bay), The Philippines (Our overseas “home port”).
- Manila, The Philippines
- Yokuska, Japan
- Osaka, Japan
- Bangkok, Thailand
- Hong Kong, China
- Okinawa, Japan
- Sydney, Australia
Oh… and that old saying that, “a sailor has a girl in every port”? It’s true.
Donald Trump and the Military
In college, I received “deferments” from military service every year. But even still, the draft loomed over my head like the Sword of Damocles. Initially, because of its basic unfairness, black and poor guys of all races seemed to get drafted and sent to the front lines way out of proportion to their numbers in the general population. In an obvious response to protests against this “poverty draft,” President Richard Nixon instituted a “lottery” system, which “selected” young men according to their birth date. My number came up — April 22. As stated, I did not want to go, had done everything I could think of not to go; but in the end, I figured I had no choice.
The other option that my father presented at our kitchen table conference that morning was to simply refuse induction and spend up to five years in a federal (military) prison — hosted by Marine guards. There again was that sword hanging precariously, tenuously by a single thread, over my head. I joined the Navy.
I submit that as long as this small and cowardly man remains “Commander in Chief,” well, yes, the real losers and suckers are all of those Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard personnel who are forced to serve under him — as well as all of the rest of us, the American people.