Archive for Wednesday, September 4, 2002

A lesson in not being free

September 4, 2002


A few decades back, the U.S. Army thought highly enough of yours truly to invite me to become a soldier. I never kept a copy of the letter of invitation, but the essence of its message was, Uncle Sam wants you.

My inclination was to write back, "Gee, guys, I respectfully decline your thoughtful invitation, as I am performing with a traveling band and having more fun than the law allows."

But in the land of the free in 1966, a man in his early 20s was only as free as his draft board and his father's connections allowed. What followed for me was a two-year, olive-drab course in not being free. (Actually, the course lasted one year, 10 months and five days, but who counted?)

The ways in which I wasn't free are too numerous to list, but for starters, I wasn't free to walk away. Morons with stripes on their shoulders gave me the stupidist possible orders, yet I was not free to turn my back and walk and walk until I encountered someone with a brain.

Once at Fort Sill I witnessed a nervous breakdown, and what that guy did was commence to walk. His balance wasn't so hot and his eyes were empty, but his feet shuffled for a block or so, till a pair of military police hauled him away in a Jeep. His mind was free, or at least gone, and his feet tried to follow.

During basic training, morons with stripes on their shoulders could insult my mother or discuss what my girlfriend must be doing with my best friend back home, and I was not at liberty to belt them.

It's one of life's ironies that a nation's freedoms are defended by the unfree. There's no other way to do it. In combat, freedom would lead to chaos, or in my case, retreat. The ranking person makes a plan. Others have to implement it. Good luck.

As a soldier, I was essentially owned by the U.S. government. I wasn't a slave. No one beat me. Had I been married, no one would have sold my wife and children down the river. My situation wasn't hopeless. I had a date when I'd be free again. But my time was not my own, and where I lived was not my choice. I didn't even get to pick whom I shot at. No one does.

If you've followed American history, you know that my generation lost its only war. We didn't mean to, but it was for the best. Had we won, we'd still have soldiers in Vietnam, unless we nuked the place or drenched every square inch with Agent Orange.

Don't get me wrong. Owned or not, I did my part, typing morning reports so the Army could know how many soldiers were in F Troop, 2nd Squadron, 11th Armored Cavalry. Not to brag, but the morning reports also kept track of who was where, who was what rank, and who died.

The simplest entry of all was the one for someone killed in action, or KIA. On the report, only a few facts followed KIA, notably time and place. It always seemed odd that the entry for someone killed was simpler than the one for a soldier going on R&R.; I can't remember how many times I typed KIA.

The war I could have gladly skipped. But the lessons in not being free were priceless.

My regret is that people who have known only freedom cannot take a small pill and suddenly feel in their bones what not being free is like. Then people would truly value freedom. Then people would be on guard against efforts to make them less free.

To my mind, the federal government is going nuts. Supposedly we're at war, one that will not end till the last terrorist is dead, which will be never. And until never comes, the government can hold people charged with nothing, while denying them access to lawyers.

That's not the nation for which I gave up one year, 10 months and five days.

Patrick Lackey is an editorial writer for The Virginian-Pilot. His e-mail address is

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