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Cal Vet’s Reflection: How Father and Son Marched to the Beats of Their Own Times

November 11, 2015
by Donald F. Rinker

Fathers and sons—not surprisingly—have things in common. Frequently, the most important are not so obvious. Similar experiences converge as life unfolds. Some, however, are fate driven. I was able to influence my son’s journey in two significant ways.

First of all, we both went to Cal. Second, we both served in the military. Brad currently is a U.S. Army Officer. I served some 45 years ago under much different circumstances.

I prepared him as well as I could for both experiences, knowing that my influence was limited as our perspectives were a generation apart. I was one of 2.7 million men conscripted into the armed services during the Vietnam War. He enlisted four years ago after completing undergraduate studies, compelled to serve as part of the 9/11 generation.

My time in the military began two weeks after I graduated, when I was directed to report to the US Armed Forces Induction Center on Clay St. in Oakland. It was Valentine’s Day, 1968.

As I entered the building that morning, I was handed a rose by a Cal student. She was part of regular anti-war demonstrations hoping to dissuade men from becoming a part of the “war machine.” All was captured on local TV news, broadcast that evening.

Ft. Lewis, Washington became my home away from home during eight weeks of Basic Combat Training (BCT). It was a brutal awakening. It seemed a giant bureaucratic mistake had been made. I felt I was treated as a jailed hostage rather than a valued “recruit.”

On day four our drill sergeant announced the platoon would meet with a post chaplain. I truly believed apologies would be extended and the situation remedied. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The chaplain, who had just returned from “Nam,” was more maniacal than our training cadre. He verbally lambasted the sleep deprived company “for not standing at the position of attention in the presence of an Army officer.” I don’t remember any pastoral message during his entire talk.

Brad’s entry into the Army was complicated by his recruiting station mishandling the application process to an absurd level. At least nine months was added to his waiting time. Finally after being sworn-in, after several days of minimal sleep, constant drilling and just trying to survive the heat and humidity of Ft. Jackson, South Carolina, he wondered if he had made the right decision to fight his way into the all-volunteer ranks.

He is among less than one-half of 1 percent of the U.S. population in the military today, the lowest rate since just before World War II. Our wars are authorized by a US Congress whose members have the lowest rate of military service in our history and overseen by three successive presidents who never served a single day of active duty.

BCT changes civilians into soldiers one step at a time. The Army is good at what it does and has had two hundred years of experience to perfect this process. I decided to take my chances as a draftee and hope for the best. Although trained as a field medic, I would later become a social work/psychology specialist and serve a 13 month tour in Korea providing mental health services to troops assigned with the 7th Infantry Division in 1969-70.

After BCT, Brad attended the very rigorous 14-week Officer Candidate School at Ft. Benning, Georgia. The physical and emotional demands on candidates are reflected in a huge dropout rate.

Just before his commission in 2012, he chose Ordnance as his branch, but upped the proverbial ante when he volunteered to attend one of the most difficult schools in the military—the Naval School Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) at Eglin AFB in Florida. This is a multi-branch training center preparing specialists to defuse live munitions and bombs in any battle field conditions. IEDs (improvised explosive devises) have been the signature weapon used against our forces in the Middle East since 9/11, with devastating effects. The unofficial EOD motto is concise: “Initial Success or Total Failure.”

Brad is well trained and used these new found skills last year while deployed for nine months in Kuwait. While in the Mideast, his EOD Company destroyed unserviceable ammunition in support of Kuwait, Qatar and Jordan. They also augmented NATO efforts in Afghanistan.

As a graduate student in social welfare at Haviland Hall in the mid 1970s, I saw first-hand how anti-war passions progressed to anti-military sentiments on campus. One of only three Veterans in the first year social work master’s program, we commiserated about the misunderstanding civilians had of the military and that service in the military was viewed a misstep rather than doing something “good” with your life. A Fall 1974 campus blood drive for military personnel at Oak Knoll Naval and Letterman Army Hospitals was sparsely attended. It was sarcastically named a “Blood and Guts Drive.”

Veterans’ benefits were disjointed and information for transitioning to civilian life then was almost non-existent. Unfortunately, I was never told about a tuition waiver program for children of disabled veterans pursuing publicly funded higher education in California. My father was a disabled World War II Marine, which would have qualified me for this program and greatly assisted my academic pursuits.

Once discharged from the Army, I knew I wanted to work with veterans and assist their transition to civilian life. A student internship at Menlo Park VA Hospital began a 35-year career which enabled me to work with those who had sacrificed dearly on Freedom’s Frontier with little recognition or acknowledgment. It became apparent to me that few people in this country had any concept of the consequences of what it asks its soldiers to endure.

Fortunately, decades of ambiguity toward veterans at Cal has been replaced with increasing support and appreciation. A host of on-campus resources, once only dreamed of, are available to veterans. Tremendous resources from the Transfer, Re-entry, and Student Parent Center and collaboration of federal and state agencies enhances the student-veteran’s experience. Also the establishment of a Veterans Resource Center at Stiles Hall is widely embraced by the campus community.

Recently, Chancellor Nicholas Dirks hosted a “Fire Side Chat” at his residence with a coalition of veterans representing, students, alumni, faculty and staff to discuss ways to attract and support veterans at Cal. This was a candid and productive meeting for all in attendance who believe there is no reason why this campus cannot be the premier destination for our newest generation of veterans. Anything we can do in support of those who served is well-timed, especially with the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan now turning into “white noise.”

As expected, my 9-year-old grandson is planning to attend UC Berkeley and play football. It is not surprising that he also talks about serving in the U.S. Army. I support both decisions, as does his uncle. Only time will tell. Presumably he won’t be drafted.

Don Rinker is president of the California Veterans and Military Affiliated Alumni and retired from the US Department of Veterans Affairs three years ago.

One in a series of personal Perspectives. We invite writers and readers to submit their own essays—inspiration can come from California magazine or California Magazine Online stories, the news, or issues of the day. Read more:

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