In his latest “Dear Grandson,” Stan Gerding writes about returning stateside from Nam and his time spent at 5th Medical Battalion awaiting his next duty station.
The day after we arrived at 5th Medical Battalion, we were taken to military clothing issue and got issued a partial sea bag of Marine uniforms. I felt like we were back in boot camp again, you know, new uniforms, haircuts, and a little orientation to the Medical Battalion and to Camp Pendleton.
The Marine Corps has their own special way of orientation and making one feel small and unwanted. We all had the impression that we were more of a bother than a part of their scheme of things. We were told to get into the uniform of the day and to muster outside of headquarters in the parking lot. When we were ready, we all moved to the parking lot and got into some sense of order.
Now, picture this, we just came from clothing issue and were told to be in the uniform of the day and to muster in front of headquarters. Our uniforms were not pressed or ironed and were wrinkled, and we were not ready for any kind of inspection.
The next thing we heard was “Attention” and so we all got to attention and watched this Lieutenant Commander Navy Medical Service Corps Officer march towards us, as if he was in a formal military parade. He looked and acted the part of a Major in the Marine Corps, hair high and tight, shoes spit polished like a sheet of glass, uniform pressed with exact creases, and a voice like a Drill Sergeant. He talked to us like we were recruits and was ignoring that we just came from combat. We were given no respect by this man and he even came out and told us we were getting no special treatment from him or anybody else.
We were there, under his command, and that he had no other choice because this was his instructions, by his superior officer. He told us that he would not tolerate any insubordination or discord and would write us up in a minute’s notice. He told us that we were to take the rest of the day and get our uniforms squared away and that tomorrow morning at 0600 there would be a formal personnel and barracks inspection.
We all went back to the barracks a little disgruntled by the treatment this Naval Officer gave us. There was a lot of talk amongst us about this Officer. One of the guys went to another barracks to talk to the Senior Chief that came back with us, but to no avail, he had already left Pendleton.
The rest of the night was filled with us getting our uniforms ready for inspection and we also took time to clean the barracks for that inspection. The next morning, we were in the parking lot ready to be inspected and the LCdr was right on time and did his inspection. When he finished, he turned us over to a Chief to be assigned to work details. I got assigned to small medical assignments all over the base; for example, if there were Marines going to the firing range, they would send me along to be the Corpsman if anyone was to get sick, injured, or wounded. Easy job considering where I just came from.
There was two of us sent on this mission and the other guy was a regular with the battalion. He and I chatted about this LCdr and I found out that he was never in the Nam and for some reason didn’t care for any Corpsman that served in the Nam. Obviously, this man had some hang-ups and I made up my mind I was just going to ignore him and just wait on my orders. The first weekend at Pendleton was a working one because the higher ups didn’t want us to go on liberty. I think they were afraid we might get into trouble. We all made the best of it and started making plans for the following weekend.
The Marine Corps has their own special way of orientation and making one feel small and unwanted.
One of our shipmates had a sister who was living in Sacramento with her husband and she told him to come up for a visit and bring some of his buddies with him. There was five of us that were going to go to Sacramento next weekend, something fun to look forward to (or so we thought). So, we booked reservations on PSA (Pacific Southwest Airlines) for Friday evening to head to Sacramento.
That week, we went to the exchange and bought some civilian clothes to wear on our trip. The whole week was filled with little jobs around the base: one day at the gas chamber, two days at the firing range, and two days at the driving school, and, before you knew it, Friday arrived and a weekend of liberty. Before we were able to leave, we got some special instructions from the Chief; you know, what to do and what not to do.
Our first experience off the base and out in the public since returning from Vietnam, it was a little awkward to say the least. When we talked, it was hard not to use cuss words, so every time we did, we felt strange because people were looking at us strange or embarrassed.
We landed in Sacramento about 6:30 p.m. and got a taxi to his sister’s house. We got to his sister’s house about 7:30, and we met her and her husband, and they had other plans to go to a friend’s party, but we weren’t invited. We camped out in their living room, watched TV, and ordered a couple of pizzas. Most of us were asleep, except for me and one other guy, and at about 1:00 a.m. the front door opened, and it was the husband with some other woman heading up the steps to the bedroom. Of course, he thought we were all asleep. I looked at the other guy and said, “That sure didn’t look like his sister.” And he said, “It wasn’t.” We both nodded off to sleep. Times sure had changed since we’d been gone. The next day was a bit awkward, especially when the sister came home about 12 noon. The rest of the weekend was uneventful, as far as we all knew; Sunday came and we headed back to Camp Pendleton.
Monday started with us mustering at 0600 with the LCdr and we figured he must have had an awful weekend because his mood was terrible, very grouchy, and he was irritated with something. We all went to the chow hall and we sat together and talked about our situation with this Navy Officer. We laughed a lot and even came up with a nickname for him: Major Tightass. It seemed very appropriate because of his demeanor and the fact that when he turned around it looked as if he had a permanent wedgy going on in his trousers. (Of course, I don’t think that term was used in the ’60s.) We also kept reminding ourselves that we were all waiting on orders and it was just a matter of time before we would be going home on leave and then on to our next duty station. Almost every day we talked about doing something to him to try and loosen him up a little, you know, jar loose that wedgy. We had no idea that it was going to take a couple of months before any of us got our orders.
By the way, when we were mustering in the mornings, we were all together with all the regulars that were permanently assigned to the 5th Med Bat (short for medical battalion). One morning at muster, Tightass and the Chief came out and told us all that 5th Med Bat was going to be inspected by the base’s Commanding Officer, a 2-star General on that Friday. Tightass looked at the fifteen of us and told us we needed to be elsewhere and not anywhere near that inspection. That didn’t bother us because we already knew Tightass didn’t like us.
Now, there was lots of talk amongst the fifteen of us to try and figure out how we could show up for that dreaded inspection.
More later, Grandson.
Stan Gerding is the author of the book The Nam “Doc” A Navy Corpsman’s Story.