What shaped us as individuals? Many of the same forces that shaped our baby boomer generation, and that inarguably includes the war in Vietnam. Former CBS News correspondent Haney Howell, of Rock Hill, South Carolina, remembers how his life was shaped by Active Duty.
I was standing in a long hallway with a mob of military inductees. At the end of the hall, awaiting us, were Marine and Army Sergeants. Those of us with tan “draftee” folders were channeled between them, every other guy getting a slap on the ass and told, “You’re in the Marines.” The night before, I seriously questioned my four-year commitment to the Air Force. Looking back, that didn’t sound so long.
On May 15, 1966, I raised my hand and was sworn into the United States Air Force. The Vietnam War was hitting stride, and a flunked college Spanish course threatened my deferment. A son of Appalachia, I’d worked at a variety of Southern radio stations and halfheartedly pursued a college education. I grew up in a world where military service was expected. Deep inside, I wanted more, and I wanted to get away.
This is not a war story. The Air Force experience was the most productive of my life, after an “attitude adjustment” in the first year. I spent much of my enlistment as an air traffic controller at a very busy Texas base, and I learned how to handle intense pressure and make quick, accurate decisions. The Air Force was all for education, and it paid my way and adjusted my schedule so I could attend Midwestern (State) University in Wichita Falls.
I lived those years in two worlds. Serving my country, I controlled some of the biggest toys on the planet. I learned to perform at a high level and made it work for me. I opposed the war on an intellectual level, but profited from it by earning four stripes in three years, only possible during a rapid buildup.
Midwestern University was my other world, an institution like most others churned by the war, the scene of a lot of political activity. I was a full-time college student, taking challenging courses from great professors and discovering the joys of learning. I decided to go for a Masters Degree. My faculty mentor introduced me to the Caddo Indian tribe, and my thesis became their first written history. I hung out at their dances and listened to the songs, now long gone in time.
I discovered the Wesley Foundation, the home of the political and anti-war activity on campus. There were the usual all-night discussions and arguments, and a chance to bond up with a unique group. I was now a “FID,” which was GI speak for “Freak in Disguise.” Our group included combat veterans and hippies, intellectuals and space cadets. The late 60s mix. We experienced the death of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the clashes with the local cowboys and rednecks, and a clear understanding that the world would never be the same.
What I didn’t realize was, this time laid the groundwork for the rest of my life. After discharge and receiving my Masters, I joined a program that provided me with a VW van to drive from Germany to India. I traveled down the old Hippie Highway, driving roads in Iran and Afghanistan that have been off limits for years. In New Delhi, I was contracted by CBS News as a radio and television “stringer,” a.k.a. freelancer, which led to time in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, then a promotion to reporter and assignment to the Saigon Bureau.
After the war, I worked at the ABC Radio Network in New York, headed to Denver as a television reporter, back to New York and CBS, and finally a decision to switch hats in my early 40s, joining the faculty in broadcast journalism at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina. I retired as professor emeritus three years ago.
None of this would have happened without that long bus ride to the Atlanta Induction Center and my willingness to jump off the end of the board. My time as an enlisted man was invaluable. It gave the reporter in me insights I would have never otherwise gained. While this period was a life changer for me, I’m well aware that it was just the opposite for many, especially the fifty-thousand-plus on The Wall in Washington. I visited there on a recent Veterans Day, and found the names of too many friends.
Mine was a few wars back, but I’ve observed the same results from the endless string of engagements since. I’m grateful for what the military did for me, and I’m well aware that others paid a much higher price.
Fifty years. It seems like yesterday.