The chopper landed in the remote jungle valley in Vietnam, containing an Army officer who had forgotten his paperwork. All of us in this particular company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade were summoned to formation. The officer confessed that his papers with the name of the individual he was looking for were not with him, but that the individual who had experience with the legal system in this formation of troops should raise his hand. His services were required in A Admin, Staff Judge Advocate, at Landing Zone English. My hand went up along with many others. The angry officer left but my name was later specifically identified as the person to go to LZ English.
As I left, the first sergeant told me, “You got my ass eaten out. Why didn’t you make yourself known? You know the week it took to get those papers back could have been the week you got your ass blown off?”
Over night I left the combat zone to a more secure base camp where I was trained as a bureaucrat. It was fine with me.
The possessors of the other raised hands had experience with the law by being accused of various crimes, it seemed. In those days, one could have the option of going in to the Army, which meant going to Vietnam, rather than serve time for about anything short of murder. It was also a fast track to citizenship if you were Mexican.
When I arrived in Vietnam, some (NCO), non commissioned officer, asked me the leading question, “Are you a Nigger, Mexican or hillbilly, because that is who are fighting here?” As the song said, “I ain’t no senator’s son”.
“I guess I am a hillbilly First Sergeant.”
At Landing Zone English I became a court reporter. My training consisted of putting a stenographer’s mask on my face, in which I was instructed to repeat everything everyone said in courts martial. I then typed the transcripts. Of necessity, great liberty was taken with the reported testimony. I tried to get the gist of it.
One day one of my former airborne, M-16 toting, ground pounding brethren came in to the sand-bagged hut where I worked. He was a Mexican PFC, and asked to talk to me. His name was long ago forgotten, but it was something akin to Jose Rodriquez. His request was he wanted help getting out of the Army. “Didn’t we all?” was my response.
“Specialist, you don’t understand. My orders have been lost. I have been in country for 14 months. In combat the whole time. I should have been back in the world two months ago,” Jose told me.
It was not that he was unbelievable, but you heard so much bull shit on a daily basis. He did earn my immediate respect because he flattered me with that flattery where some one thinks you are important and can do something and neither thing is true. He held his steel pot in his hand, encrusted from head to toe with Vietnam dirt.
“Rodriquez, you need to go over to the Adjutant General’s office and talk to someone in payroll or finance. They will have your records and that should tell when your ETS is or was.”
“They won’t talk to me Specialist.” Jose said.
“Go back over there, and have one of them call me.” I told him. I never heard anything further.
That night I asked Larry Young, a lawyer friend of mine from Tennessee, if he knew anyone over at finance. He did not. He also didn’t think Jose’s story was likely true. Larry said, “He probably forgot to deduct the three months ‘bad time’ he spent in Long Bien Jail for puffing on a bong.” We laughed. We drank the free beer and smoked the free cigarettes.
Back in the states I was waiting for notice from the Army where and when I started my Army reserve duty. It never came. I never went. The Army’s record center in St. Louis, had burned to the ground. I guess that was it.
The day I got my first job as a lawyer I heard on the national news that combat veteran Jose Rodriquez, formerly of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, was sworn in as a United States citizen before a federal judge in Ohio. He stood shakily on two prosthetic legs, having lost his real ones to a booby trap in Vietnam. The judge congratulated him and expressed sadness over the error in his records that caused his injuries months after he should have returned to the U.S.
Jose, if you are still out there brother, I have never listened to a sad or improbable story since then without thinking of you.