Memorial Day brings thoughts of Ernie
It's Monday. Memorial Day. And for a brief period the sun is out. I am sitting on my front porch reading the morning paper. The across-the-street neighbor has his American flag out, and it's flying at half staff on the pole, kept almost straight out by a stiff breeze. And I'm thinking of Ernie.
As a Vietnam-era veteran, you'd think that I knew quite a few men who were killed in action. After all, we lost over 55,000 in that war. But I was lucky. I wasn't close to the action or around many folks who were in it.
I was drafted in 1968 after being protected by student deferments through college and then getting into a fairly invulnerable job teaching at Wichita West High. Or so I thought. When I got the notification that I would be reclassified 1A, I tried to get my principal to write a letter to my draft board in Butler County begging them to reconsider. My principal was not sure that I was necessary to the operation of the school so, in January of 1969, I went to take my physical and then to induction.
In basic training at Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri, I was among many other unsuccessful draft evaders.
Many were drafted out of grad schools. Others were "bottom of the barrel" selections as a part of (then Secretary of Defense) Robert McNamara's 100,000. These were men previously exempted for being poor risks to train and give a gun to.
In its infinite wisdom, the Army selected me to be a military policeman. In fact they carefully selected all those in my basic training company with names beginning with F through K. We were to be sent to Ft. Sill, Oklahoma, to receive on-the-job training. (It seems that so many military police were being killed leading convoys in Vietnam that the MP school was not producing enough for the demand.)
Apparently and to my great good fortune, the plan was to send us to Ft. Sill, train us to run the post but not to give us the normal training given at MP school to teach us to operate in a combat zone.
And it worked out for 28 out of 30 of us. We had some trained policemen who had done their tour in 'Nam and were putting in six months or so before their enlistments ran out and a few lifers, but mostly we were the post police force for 18 months.
Augmenting our numbers and serving mostly as gate guard personnel (little training required) was a rotating cadre of soldiers awaiting their advanced training school. Some OCS acceptees waiting for the next class in Artillery Officers Candidate School to begin while some were headed for other training classes. Ernie was one of those.
Ernie was waiting for a class at the Military Police School and then for advanced training that would qualify him to join the Criminal Investigation Division. CID was to MP as detective is to cop.
He was a gung ho CID wanna be.
Ernie was also the butt of many jokes. He was from California, but he was about as naive and gullible as a person could be. He wasn't mentally limited, he was just guileless and unsophisticated.
I can only imagine what high school had been like for him.
But Ernie was really likeable. He would try to be one of the guys and a few of us would take him under our wings or try to include him in various extra-military activities. He was like a big puppy dog under many circumstances.
He was also, even after basic training, kind of pudgy. Though he was 31 years old, he was a perpetual teenager. I'm not sure that he even shaved regularly. This in a unit where many had to shave twice a day to maintain company standards.
Nothing seemed to get Ernie down for long. He would come in from a 12-hour shift on the gate in icy weather and seem as happy and eager as if he was on his way to a strip club. And he took his training seriously.
I remember when Ernie got his orders to move out to his training school. He was going to be a CID man the way kids are sure that they will be cowboys or firemen.
Ernie came into the Army in 1970. He became a CID man. He was sent to Vietnam. He was killed on New Years Eve, 1970. We didn't hear about it until the spring.
Ernie was my closest friend to be killed in Vietnam. I think about him frequently, especially when I meditate on the futility of war. Ernie wasn't killed in combat. He was murdered. I heard that it was a drug bust gone bad. He was shot by an American soldier who was dealing drugs.
Rest in peace, Leroy Ernest Halbert Jr., Sgt. U.S. Army Military Police Corps, Criminal Investigation Division. And all others who died in that war. And all wars.