It was one of those Christmas parties that pop up at this time of year. Eric and I started talking about how Bill Clinton could work a room like no one he had ever seen.
Eric was born and raised in Arkansas, in a family with a decorated military history. Far down his family line his ancestors had served and worn uniforms. It was all documented in black & white family photos taken in an era when such photos often took ten-plus minutes to produce.
Now, Eric was a bi-focaled Alternate to the California State Democratic Party Convention. At 18, he had been a clear-sighted, gung-ho, patriotic American who enlisted for Vietnam.
"My commander directed me to lead my squad on a lead patrol
and I refused," he told me about his experience in the war. "There were nine of us left out of my 13-man squad.
He wanted us to go down the river valley as the lead. He was fresh out of the
academy and explained why it would work. I said, 'With all due respect, sir,
I've been around here a lot longer, and I know if I take my men down there none
of them will come out.'"
"Did you take them down there?" I asked.
"No, I refused. They busted me from squad leader to PFC [Private First Class]. They were supposed to send me for six months of solitary confinement, then six more months of the brig, and bust me out.
"As it turned out, because of the amount of time I spent in
Vietnam, I ended up leaving as a sergeant. I was a sergeant working for the
Pentagon when Saigon was falling. We were watching the fall unfold on screens.
As I reported the fall to my commander, he looked at me and said, 'Let's have a
beer when it's done....' We put on a helluva drunk that night."
"I'm surprised they didn't just bust you to PFC and send you with your squad down the river."
"No, it would've been detrimental to the discipline and morale of the team. So they busted me and sent me back."
"Did another squad go down?"
"Did they come out?"
"They were all killed."
After a pause, he continued. "You know you go there all patriotic for your country. Knowing your country is right and you're patriotic for it. Then you're there and none of that matters. The only thing that matters is the guy on your left and the guy on your right. Can he give magazine ammunition when you need it...? The only thing that matters is the guy on your right and left. Can he pass you ammo? And it doesn't matter whether he's gay, black, or smells bad."