The Drill Sergeant’s Wife
Seaside California in the mid-1960’s was almost an extension of Ft. Ord Military base. I was a young divorcee with two little kids and lived just blocks from one of the gates to the post. I was an avid dancer, who frequented “The White House” club on Fremont Street, where I met a captivating young soldier. We started dating and as I got to know him and what he did at Ft. Ord, a new world unfolded for me. He was a handsome, 6’4” Drill Sergeant from San Juan, Puerto Rico. He was a former Tank Commander in Germany and had recently graduated from Drill Instructors School, which had opened in 1964 at Ft. Ord.
For a civilian hairstylist, a mom and a local, this was pretty exotic stuff. I was swept off my feet. It all seemed so patriotic and glamorous at the time. The starched, creased, uniform, the “Smokey Bear” hat, the shining brass and boots so perfectly spit-polished you could see your face in them, were very impressive. Viet Nam was all anyone was talking about and I was going to play a part in the life of someone who was training young recruits preparing most of them to go to war. What a romantic notion!
The first crisis we faced as a couple was the meningitis outbreak in the barracks in 1965. The initial meningitis catastrophe had hit prior to October, 1964, when the recruits suffered 2 deaths and hospitalized over 200. It even killed a wife visiting her husband in basic training. Every day was a nightmare.
The recruits were up at 5:00 A. M. and in bed by 9:30 P. M. and restricted to post. We had one car, so I was up at 4:30 A. M. to take my husband to the barracks and there at 10:00 or 11:00 P.M. to pick him up six and sometimes seven days a week. The conditions in the barracks were primitive and the windows were left open at night as a deterrent, as it was not known how the disease was spread. This was a usual schedule for a Drill Instructor, but with the added fear of infection.
The Drill Instructors were a different breed. Their Creed was:
“I am a drill sergeant dedicated to training new soldiers and influencing the old. I am forever conscious of each soldier under my charge, and by example will inspire him to the highest standard possible.
I will strive to be patient, understanding, just and firm. I will commend the deserving and encourage the wayward.
I will never forget that I am responsible to my commander for the morale, discipline and efficiency of my men and their performance will reflect an image of me.”
The reputation of Drill Sergeants is that they were tough, even cruel, demanding, mean, verbally insulting and often physically abusive. I was there, in the early mornings and late nights and saw this behavior. I found fault with it, but my husband would come home exhausted, emotional and near tears when he considered that if he didn’t toughen these kids up, they would come home from Viet Nam in body bags, unprepared for the harsh conditions of war. Many of them did. This led to heavy drinking among the DI’s at the Officer’s Club and at home. Many of the men became alcoholics.
My children felt the effects at home of a stepfather who couldn’t seem to leave the “Smokey” hat on the Ft. Ord gate when he was home, and they still talk about the abuse they suffered, as they were treated at times like recruits.
The hospital was so far below today’s standard, it would have been condemned. The barracks were old, wooden, poorly heated and conditions were basic. My husband sustained a wound in the thigh from a piece of shrapnel that exploded during a training exercise. He was taken to the hospital and forgotten. Days went by and he wasn’t seen by a doctor. The ward he was in was full of young men who had been injured in Nam and flown home to be ignored, due to low staffing of medical personnel. Some died from neglect. I launched a campaign to get him medical care and finally a pediatrician I found in a hallway agreed to look at his wound, which was now infected. The doctor stuck his finger in the wound, without anesthetic, and agreed that he needed antibiotics. Imagine the pain! They didn’t remove the shrapnel, which worked itself out in time.
Ft. Ord was the only United States base that welcomed what we would call today, integrated couples. I had noticed that there were a significant number of black soldiers married to white women, and being an anglo, raised in the south, I found this curious. I didn’t realize that my husband and I were considered Integrated until years later. His grandmother had African blood and he was swarthy. He considered himself Spanish, but the populace thought differently about mixed marriages. Fortunately, I already owned my home, or we wouldn’t have been able to buy in Seaside, but I was ignorant of this at the time.
One incident I remember so well was when the American people were just sick and tired of the War. One rainy day, he came home and picked up his bayonet and fixed it and went to the gates of Fort Ord to defend it from the local protesters. I was horrified that he was so “militarily brainwashed” that he couldn’t understand that the American people owned the post. The base added gate security and was never again an open post.
He had served a year in Korea in late 1965-66 and when he was ready to come back to the states, he was assigned to Fort Knox, Kentucky, in tanks. I realized what life would be like for my family in the South and when he was unable to get his orders changed, I went to a friend who was the Aide-de-camp to the Commanding General at Fort Ord and pleaded my case. I knew a Master Sergeant who needed him as a DI here and eventually got him reassigned before he returned home. He went back to training young men until he was no longer needed. Many never came home and the ones that did are still paying for their service.
Over half a million young men went through eight weeks of basic here: “Marching, Full Field Inspections, Tear Gas Room, Bayonet Training, Artillery Training, Pass and Review and Graduation”. If you failed, the first time, your repeated the eight weeks and the DI’s took it out on you for being a loser.
It was tough on the recruits, tough on the DI's and tough on those of us at home supporting the war effort. His troops would remember him as Drill Sergeant Felix Morales.
- Chris Station, June, 2010