So there we were, in late 1970, having graduated from the US Army Military Police Correctional Specialist Academy, the best-trained prison guards in the world. We had been assigned to one of the worst prisons in the world, the stockade at Long Bình, Vietnam, better known as the Long Bình Jail, or LBJ.

Our job was to take LBJ by its scruffy neck and shake it until it converted itself into the best-run prison on the planet. There was just one problem: they wouldn’t let us into the place.

Most people, I imagine, when they think of prisons, they think about how hard it is to get out of them, not into them. But, again, we’re talking about the US Army, so there had to be a SNAFU somewhere.

The reason we couldn’t get into LBJ was that the United States Senate had decided, way, way after the LBJ riot was over and done with, to get all riled up about it. The Armed Services Committee held hearings and then, after many months had passed, decided that they were going to get to the bottom of what had happened.

Just before my graduating class of correctional specialists was scheduled to take control of LBJ, the Senate Committee sent a bunch of fussbudget investigators to Long Bình, and those investigators decided to interview every man jack in the stockade – prisoners, guards, administrative staff, everybody. And until they were finished, no one could transfer out of LBJ or into LBJ – the place was hermetically sealed.

So, as I was saying, there we were, the beneficiaries of millions of dollars’ worth of prison guard training, standing around doing nothing. (Well, we weren’t exactly doing nothing, but since I’m now a dad and a husband and have a day job, the exact details of the “nothing” we were doing is nobody’s business.)

Then we began to notice that our numbers were diminishing. Every week two, three, five guys would simply disappear. Turns out we were being “Nixoned.” President Nixon knew that, politically, he had to get the US out of Vietnam, but he had no idea how to do it. So to buy himself some time, every week Nixon would go on television and announce that he had ordered another, say, 200 combat troops to come home.

Well, that was swell for Richard Nixon, but what about for the boys still fighting over there? Every week your Commander-in-Chief is pulling combat troops out of the field, while every week your enemy’s commander-in-chief is putting more combat troops into the field. This isn’t how they taught it at West Point.

The Army had to do something, and what they did was to take the usual blunderbuss approach – they started turning nearly every soldier in Vietnam into a combat infantryman. I’m talking truck drivers, cooks, engineers, everybody. You may have thought that your MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) was 15N (aviation mechanic), but you quickly found out that you were actually an 11 Bravo – infantryman, grunt.

So that’s what was happening to the Army’s superbly trained correctional specialists – we were taking off our white hats and putting on combat helmets and heading out into the jungle to get shot at. Needless to say, those of us who were still around were keeping our heads down and trying to figure out how to become invisible.

Alas, one day I was leaving the mess hall with four other guys when a passing lieutenant called out, “Hey, you men! Come with me!” Well, hell.

We followed the louie over to the Provost Marshall’s office (the PM is the senior officer in an MP company). In the hall outside the office there was a long bench on which, normally, manacled prisoners sat. “Sit there,” said the louie, “and don’t move.”

So we sat, cursing our luck. A few minutes later we heard loud, decisive footsteps striding down the hall and, looking off that way, we saw an E-7 approaching. We didn’t know it at the time, but that was no ordinary E-7 – that was Sergeant First Class Duke Hock, probably the most famous – or infamous – E-7 in the entire Army.

Duke had lied about his age so he could fight in Korea. Then he had fought at the Bay of Pigs. And now he had just completed his third combat tour in Vietnam. The word “terrifying” only begins to hint at what most soldiers thought about Sergeant Duke Hock.

When Duke reached us, seated there on the bench, he stopped, looked us up and down, spat on the ground, then headed on into the PM’s office. Almost immediately we heard loud voices raised and somebody, probably Duke, pounding on a table.

Then the door burst open and Duke stormed out. He came to a dead stop in front of us, gave us a disgusted look, then pointed at me and said, “You – come with me, trooper.” I went.

What had happened is that the louie had been detailed to round up some soldiers who could be converted into infantrymen, which he’d done. But Sergeant Hock, who was the senior NCO in the MP unit, was desperate for MPs. Hence the raised voices. The PM, who was a Solomonic sort of guy, compromised. Four of us were going to the infantry, but Duke could have one for his MP company – and he could pick which one he wanted.

The other four guys duly got attached to an infantry unit, while Duke Hock made me acting sergeant in charge of the traffic division. The other four guys were in harm’s way every day, while the only danger I was in was that some drunk fool might come roaring out of the NCO club parking lot and slam into me head-on.

Next week we’ll learn a little more about Sergeant First Class Duke Hock, my boss during all the rest of my time in the Army.

Next up: How Shined Shoes Can Save Your Life, Part 3

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