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Why I Did It

ISSUE:  Winter 1980

I enlisted in the United States Marine Corps in 1966. 1 was 17 years old. Under what was called a delayed enlistment program, I actually signed the enlistment contract two months before I finished high school, though I didn’t leave for boot camp (basic training at Parris Island, South Carolina) until I graduated. I knew I would go to Vietnam—I wanted to go—and my recruiter, a Staff Sergeant Robert Bookheimer, assured me that I would. (Whatever else you or I might have to say about Bookheimer, he was an honest man; he told me nothing during our long discussions that did not turn out to be true. As I have gathered from friends, acquaintances, and a great deal of reading since, he was a rarity among military recruiters.) And I did indeed go to Vietnam, where nothing I had anticipated happened, and everything I never dreamed of came true. But that’s another story.

Most people who learn that I’ve been to Vietnam, but who haven’t yet been told the details, invariably assume that I was drafted. Not an unreasonable assumption. After all, relatively few bright, “college material types” willingly enlisted in the military—certainly not in the mid-60’s, when student deferments from the draft were readily available—though many did accept their draft notices if and when they got them rather than choosing the alternatives of prison or exile. Enlistment was the choice of only juvenile delinquents, blue-collar kids, and dimwits.

Thus when I correct the erroneous assumption, the reaction is equally invariably an astonished, “Why?!” The response that, “Well, it seemed like the thing to do at the time,” is both accurate and expedient, especially when accompanied by a shrug of the shoulders indicating an intense desire not to pursue the matter further. But it doesn’t answer the question at all, and I suspect more than one person faced with that response has concluded that I must fall into the category of dimwit. Which may be true, but that doesn’t answer the question either.

Well, why indeed? Though I was born in western Pennsylvania and lived for a few years thereafter in the central part of the state, I really grew up in Perkasie, a town of 5,000 in upper Bucks County between Philadelphia and Allentown. In recent years, Perkasie has begun to show unmistakable signs of having contracted terminal suburban sprawl; but while I was growing up, it was a quiet little country town. (Between 1960 and 1970, for instance, census figures show the population remaining almost constant, varying by something like ten souls.) People left their houses unlocked at night, and neighbors called to each other from large front porches on warm summer evenings, and kids went sledding on Third Street hill when it snowed in the winter. There were no traffic lights in town; there was no need for them. The whole countryside around was dotted with small family farms, and you could get on your bicycle and in ten minutes be coasting between corn fields, or go down to Lake Lenape (which was really a branch of the Perkiomen Creek that ran right through town; I never have figured out why it’s called a lake) and catch painted turtles and water snakes. Carolers strolled from house to house on Christmas Eve, and Jimmy the shoe repair man knew the shoe size of everyone in town.

There were no blacks in Perkasie (we called them Negroes in those days), and only two or three black families in the entire Pennridge area (the school district that encompassed Perkasie, three other smaller boroughs, and four rural townships). There were few if any truly wealthy people, and I don’t recall anything resembling real poverty. Most Perkasians worked hard and honestly for what they had, and most were comfortable. And the belief that life in America (which for most people in Perkasie meant life in Perkasie) was as it should be, and was the direct result of the bounty and blessing of God, the wisdom of our revolutionary fathers, and the sacrifices of succeeding generations was not a notion to be scoffed at.

It would not be difficult to make Perkasie appear contemptible and silly. The response to suggesting the removal of a tree from the grounds of the public swimming pool would likely be a bewildered, “But it’s always been there.” The almost nonexistent crime rate was extremely fortuitous, since the few cops (most of which were part-time) were mainly useful in chasing small dogs and serving as chauffeurs for the favorite target of adolescent snowballs and water balloons (i.e., Perkasie’s one police car). The reigning quarterback of the high school football team was a celebrity on a par with movie stars and statesmen, and coach Wayne Helman was a folk hero. Our high school guidance counsellors actively discouraged students from considering such schools as UCLA— in fact, couldn’t understand why anyone would want to go to school so far away—considering it a solemn duty to shepherd as many kids as possible into the likes of Millersville, Shippensburg, Kutztown, and West Chester. Going to New York City, 90 miles to the northeast, was an exotic and rather dangerous venture to be planned months in advance and talked about for years after—I don’t think many people in Perkasie ever went to New York City; those that did were considered adventurous and perhaps a little eccentric. Year in and year out, generations advanced as the generations that had preceded them, and nothing much out of the ordinary ever happened except an occasional shotgun wedding. Rotary Club meetings and church were well attended.

But to paint Perkasie merely as a laughable little hick town, to dismiss its complacence and neighborliness and the vicious blindness of its provinciality as grand farce would seriously mislead you. For, in spite of the ridicule I heaped upon Perkasie in my rebellious teen years (a redundancy, I suppose) and my active desire to get out of town as fast as I could, the values and standards by which Perkasie measured the world became my own. I might drink beer and skip church and give my parents and teachers the fits, but I never questioned the meaning of Duty, Honor, and Country. (And beneath the anger and bitterness growing out of the colossal rip-off of the Vietnam War and my part in it, I know that no one who taught me those values and standards deliberately tried to deceive me. Perhaps that is the saddest thing of all. As people inevitably do, they merely showed me the world as they saw it themselves. It excuses neither them nor me, but it is important to understand.)

So I grew up on a steady diet of America as the greatest and noblest nation on earth—a nation flawed only in minor and correctable ways—in an environment that offered no visible contradiction to those beliefs. In elementary school, I read books about John Paul Jones and Pecos Bill, and at Halloween, I collected money for UNICEF to help the children in countries less fortunate than our own. Leaving food on a plate brought a stern admonishment to remember the starving millions in Red China. Ike, the good soldier and fatherly statesman, was the president. Each school day began with the Lord’s Prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance, in that order; and we learned about peasants in Bolivia and William Penn and wampum belts, and sometimes had atomic bomb drills where we would all have to sit in rows in the halls, facing the wall and curling up with our heads between our knees and our hands clasped behind our necks. As far back as I can remember, every Memorial Day I decorated my bicycle with red, white, and blue crepe paper and rode in the town parade; and every year I could hardly wait for the awesome and thrilling 21-gun salute fired by the uniformed members of the Hartzell-Crouthamel American Legion Post, and the playing of taps at the end of the salute that sent chills through my body and left everyone reverently silent for a moment like the end of a church service. I knew the 23rd Psalm and the Gettysburg Address by heart and earned enough money selling newspapers to buy a subscription to a magazine called Our Navy. Elvis Presley was a sensation, and the Russian Sputnik was a very bad thing indeed.


I was in the 10th grade when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Together with my oldest brother, John, and his girl-friend, I stood in line from ten at night until six the next morning to see the casket lying beneath the great Capitol dome; and when I saw it, I cried. On the cover of my school notebook for that year, I wrote, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Beneath that, I added, “Ich bin ein Berliner.” The Cuban Missile Crisis was still recent history, and I can still see clearly the photograph in Life magazine of U.S. Army helicopters suspended in the air over the green rice fields of Laos, and Vietnam was beginning to appear in the news more frequently; and over it all loomed the sinister figure of Nikita Khrushchev, pounding with his shoe and shouting, “We will bury you!”

In November of 1964, I rode around Perkasie one evening on the back of a flatbed truck singing Barry Goldwater campaign songs. I was impatient with Lyndon Johnson and his dovish approach to Vietnam. I was 16 then. In an English class that year, I wrote the only piece of fiction I have ever done: a story about a teenaged boy behind the Iron Curtain who tries to flee across the border. He is killed by border guards just as he reaches the wire, and the last sentence reads: “He doubled over and slipped to the ground, his mouth twisting into a smile.” In history class, we discussed that guy, Miller I think his name was, who publicly burned his draft card at Yale, uniformly concluding that he was a Commie creep and a coward. (That same year, I wrote a poem called “Friendship,” which went something like this:

Two hands reach out to each other
across the gap between them.
One hand is white;
the other is black.
  Why can’t it be this way?)

In December of 1965, soon after the battle of the la Drang Valley, which first confirmed the presence of North Vietnamese regular army troops in South Vietnam, I began thinking about enlisting in the service. America, the beacon and hope of the Free World, had bestowed upon me the blessings of freedom, and it is no joke to say that I felt very deeply that burden. In a journalism class the following spring, I wrote an editorial which, sincerely patriotic, said: “The casualty rates in the war in Vietnam are rapidly rising. More American boys have been killed in the first four months of this year than were killed in all of 1965. Just this past week, more United States soldiers were killed than South Vietnamese.

“These are staggering realizations. But even more staggering are the anti-American demonstrations that are rocking every major city in South Vietnam. It appears that we are not welcome there. We are fighting a war to liberate a people who do not wish to be liberated. American boys are dying for no good cause.

“Yet is this true? We don’t believe it is. The people of South Vietnam live in constant fear. No, perhaps not the city-dwellers, those who are doing most of the demonstrating. They have the security of the city to protect them. But the people who farm the thousands of rice fields, the people who live in the fishing villages, the mountain tribesmen, these people truly live in fear. Vietcong guerrillas roam the country controlling the fields, jungles, rivers, villages, roads and everything except the few small strongholds of United States Special Forces and Marines. The people are forced to hide VC from pursuers. Vietcong strongmen tax villagers heavily for food—food which they use to feed their guerrilla bands. Vietcong “recruiters” take men and boys and forcibly impress them into the rebel army. All of this is done under threats of destruction of crops and villages, torture and death—and the VC have proven that they do not bluff.

“There is no freedom in South Vietnam. To have freedom, there must be free elections. Yet how can there be free elections in South Vietnam with such strong influences as the VC have on the vast majority of the people? And without free elections, how can there be freedom?

“As long as the Vietcong or any other subversive influences exist, there can never be a free country of South Vietnam. This, then, is the cause for which so many Americans have lost their lives.

“To those of you who feel that these boys are dying for no reason, we say this: What more noble a cause can a man die for, than to die in defense of freedom?”

I had other reasons for enlisting in the Marines, which I will shortly come to; but underlying them and making it possible to act on them as I did was a fundamental belief in the essential Tightness of America and all that the American government did in the world. I had been taught that I owed something to my country (and in those days if you were male, of age, and healthy, what you owed was military service, end of discussion), and I had been taught why. And as the war in Vietnam grew hot, and the draft cranked up in defense of freedom, America needed me now. The day I took the Oath of Allegiance at a Marine Reserve substation in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, I felt more than anything else virtuous and noble. I knew, I really knew that Geoge Washington and Abraham Lincoln and John Kennedy were proud of me.

Still, the upbringing I’d had was not substantially different from that of the rest of my peers in the college-preparatory sections of the class of ‘66, yet I was the only one who chose not to go to college. Thus, those other reasons I had are important, too.

To begin with, though I’d been accepted at four universities by the middle of my senior year, I was quite undecided about what I wanted to study or what I wanted to be. It seemed reasonable that a few years in the service might help to make those decisions easier, give me some time to think things over. I knew I would also then be eligible for federal financial aid under the G.I. Bill, with which I could pay for my college education. And since I did owe something to my country (which meant only one thing), and since college deferred one from the draft but did not exempt one entirely, I felt it would be better to get it over with before I went to college rather than after, when I would just be getting ready to start a career.

(None of these deductions turned out to be true. If anything, I was even more confused about what I wanted for my life by the time I was discharged three years later. And the G.I. Bill allotment was a ridiculous pittance—in 1969, it was $135 a month, period, as opposed to tuition, books, and $75 a month cash for my father’s generation. And by 1970, when I would have graduated from college, the lottery system of selection was in effect, and I would have ended up with a number too high for me to be drafted. Life’s little ironies. Nevertheless, at the time, these seemed like plausible reasons for enlisting when I did.)

I had also at the time a rather unrealistic perception of what it meant to be in the service and fight a war. Is it even necessary to say that? I’d grown up on John Wayne, Audie Murphy, and William Holden. I knew all about Nathan Hale, and Alvin York and Eddie Rickenbacker. As a kid, I’d spent hundreds of hours building plastic models of bombers and fighter planes and battleships, carefully painting them and displaying them all over the house, and I could tell you all about each one. Along with cowboys and Indians, war was a favorite pastime, and my two most memorable childhood Christmas presents were a lifesize plastic .30 caliber machine-gun, and a .45 caliber automatic cap pistol in a leather holster with USMC embossed on the military-style cover flap. (I was so proud of that pistol that I ran up the street first chance I got to show it off to Margie Strawser.) I’d seen many times the old newsreels of the troops coming home at the end of World War II and was in awe of the fathers of my friends whom I knew had been heroes in that war (as far as we were concerned, anybody who had been in the service during wartime was a hero). Parades and medals and girls kissing you in the streets—I’d been through it all countless thousands of times in 17 years, and now I could really make those fantasies come true—Aladdin’s magic lamp.

I had also, by my senior year of high school, developed a fondness for the attention and notoriety one receives by doing the daring and the unexpected. The summer before, Pete Kosiak and I had gone to California without bothering to tell our parents in advance; it was a great adventure, and we’d returned at the end of the summer to accolades of wonder and admiration from our peers. That winter, I took the family Volkswagen and, again without notice, drove alone to Amarillo, Texas, and back in four days. I always had other reasons for doing those kinds of things, but I certainly relished the attendant attention they produced. And joining the Marines— oh, wow, that would really leave’em gasping.


Of course, the decision to join the Marines was made simultaneously with the decision to enlist at all. For, once I began thinking of enlisting, it was obvious which service I had to join. The Marines had the most glorious reputation and tradition. Marines were heroes by virtue solely of being Marines. (Our high school had an Armed Forces Day all-school assembly every spring during which representatives of all four branches of the military would address the students. The Marine, in his dazzling dress blue uniform with red trouser stripes and gold piping, was easily the most impressive.)

And although I was a good student, graduating in the top ten in a class of 276, and no discipline problem in school, I was pretty wild on my own time. I drank and partied a lot and made little secret of my contempt for the social mores of Perkasie and Pennridge High. Many of the town parents suspected I was seducing their daughters, and while it wasn’t true—I didn’t really have the slightest idea how to go about it, and was far too scared of VD and pregnancy, considering bare breast and perhaps a little feel between the legs an immensely successful night at the drive-in—I did little, well actually nothing, to discourage the suspicion. More than one adult, teacher-types mostly, had suggested to me that I wasn’t capable of conforming to “society’s standards.” (On the first day of our three-day senior class trip to Washington, D.C., I was caught smoking cigarettes in the men’s room of Scholl’s Cafeteria—a violation of trip rules, the only disciplinary violation I was ever nailed for at PHS. When the trip chaperones magnanimously suggested that they wouldn’t send me home if I apologized to the entire class and henceforth never left the tour buses except in the company of a teacher, I said, “Where’s the bus station?” It was that kind of recalcitrance that rankled them, I think. They sent me home, threw me off the track team, tried unsuccessfully to expel me from student council and the National Honor Society, and wouldn’t talk to me pleasantly for weeks.) So at the time I enlisted in the Marines, I was thinking, “I’ve got to prove something to myself.” Which I now realize meant, “I’ll show them.”

In addition, the Marines offered me the chance to exorcise the devil himself. All my life, I’d avoided physical confrontation passionately; I was a devout coward. I still remember vividly and painfully a winter day on frozen Lake Lenape. I was about nine or ten at the time, when Jerry Doughty punched me in the face over and over again, taunting me to fight, and I didn’t know how and was too frightened even to try to defend myself, and so I just stood there crying and let him beat me bloody while Les Kappell and the other boys stood around us laughing at me. And the time in the boys’ room on the second floor of the junior high school when Lloyd Detweiler, a boy half my size, though I was only just over five feet at the time, started pushing me around, and I was saved only by the appearance of my tough pal, Larry Rush, and Larry and I went off to lunch with me telling him what I had been about to do to Lloyd and knowing it was all lies and still shaking inside. And the time, only a year before I enlisted, when Jimmy Whiteneck spit in my face at a party and said he was going to kill me for “messing with his girl,” and I left by the back door in utter humiliation, and after that “his girl” never treated me the same again.

But the Marine Corps could change all that (“Ask a Marine;” “Tell it to the Marines”), erase all those degradations, and transform me into a Man To Be Feared, a man no one would dare to mess with. I liked that thought at least as much as the idea of being a hero.

Finally, there was another reason at least as important and compelling as any of the others, though I didn’t understand it until years later (there were a lot of things I didn’t understand until years later). I have two older brothers. My father is a Protestant minister in a town where ministers are notable and noticeable figures. Everybody knew the Ehrhart boys. And no matter what I did—good grades in school, varsity letters in sports, you name it—my brothers had already done it before me. And everybody knew it. And reminded me of it often. “You’re almost as good a student as your brother was,” was Mr. Smith’s highest praise for me in history class, and he meant it sincerely as a compliment. On the night Bob graduated, winning the outstanding history and Spanish awards—I was finishing 9th grade then—the school superintendent, Mr. Rosenkrance, jovially said to me, “Bob really cleaned up tonight. Do you think you can do as well?” Though neither my parents nor my brothers ever laid that rap on me, the rest of Perkasie sure as hell did. And I think now, as much as anything, I enlisted in the Marines because it was something neither John nor Bob had done (both were in college then). Let them follow me for a change. (They did, Bob receiving a commission in the Air Force in 1967, John in the Marines in 1968. My younger brother, Tom, recently joined the Peace Corps and is now in Thailand. I’m dubious about the efficacy of a person who has never planted more than a row of carrots teaching agriculture to people who have been farming for 10,000 years or so; but it’s certainly better than killing them. And besides, he’s doing something none of his brothers have done.)

So there you have it. Ball all of those reasons up together so that they get all mixed in with each other and overlapping and superimposed and nearly indistinguishable from each other, and you get some idea of what was going on in my head when I decided to enlist in the Marine Corps in the spring of 1966. You see now, perhaps, why I usually just say, “Well, it seemed like the thing to do at the time,” and let it go at that.

My parents, of course, were not exactly thrilled with the idea. Because I was only 17, they had to sign the enlistment contract, too—and they were reluctant to do so. They’re just folks, really, and who wants a son to join the Marines when he could go to college? But we talked about it for some time, and finally they agreed. I don’t remember this part of the conversation, but my mother says that what changed her mind was when I asked, “Is this how you raised me, to let somebody else’s kid fight the wars?” Well, Mom and Dad “believed in America,” too—after all, a lot of what I believed, I’d learned from them—and they couldn’t conceive of a government that would lie to its people or send its sons off to fight a war where God wasn’t on our side; and given that, there wasn’t much more they could say.

A few people tried, in their own ways, to get me to see things differently. Though my journalism teacher, Mrs. Geosits, gave me an A for the editorial quoted above, she also wrote at the end of it: “I hope your feelings are strengthened along these lines—but not to the point where you no longer see the whole picture.” And after a feature story assignment in which I described how, after twelve weeks of boot camp, I’d be a “full-fledged Marine,” she wrote: “To your satisfaction? To the satisfaction of the USMC? Be careful of the 12-week package; there’s no guarantee.” And John Diehl, my senior English teacher, himself a former Marine and a very broad-minded man, who would bring in full-page ads from the New York Times protesting the war (I suspect now that he was far more radical than he was safely permitted to let on in the narrow atmosphere of Perkasie and Pennridge High School), sat me down one night at his place and tried to talk me out of enlisting.

But I was young and full of juice, and you couldn’t tell me a damned thing. And surprised as people were, the general response was one of approval and admiration. No doubt, the older set thought it would make a man of me, settle me down and discipline the wild, rebellious streak. Mr. Kern, the teacher who had busted me in Washington, shook my hand and wished me luck. I got my picture in the local weekly, the Perkasie News-Herald, standing with Sergeant Bookheimer in front of the high school—and in the neighboring Quakertown Free Press as well. My high school sweetheart, Ginny, began wearing a Marine Corps eagle, globe, and anchor pin on her blouse.

And thus, willfully and voluntarily, I went to war in Vietnam, where I learned that it takes no courage to kill, and that acting under fire is mostly a function of training and the instinct for survival, and that most folks in Perkasie didn’t have the foggiest perception of what was going on in Vietnam or anywhere else in the world. And where, though it took years for me to comprehend fully what had happened, the belief in Duty, Honor, and Country as I had come to know it fell beneath the boots of armed men acting on the orders of the United States government and in the name of the American people and died under the terrified and hate-filled gaze of human beings who wanted little else but for me to stop killing them and go away.


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