I’ve had some inquiries from some fans and fellow vets about my military experience, so I thought I’d share a few things here about that very special time in my life.
Here’s the summary:
Active duty, 1974-1978. MOS 98G. Army Security Agency. Stationed USASAFSB, West Berlin. Initially a WAC (first 6 months of enlistment, til the WACs were dissolved). Vietnam Era veteran, National Defense Ribbon, Occupation Troop ribbon, Good Conduct Ribbon. Honorable discharge, Rank: Spec 4 (E4).
And if you want more grist, here it is.
I’ve long been a fan of things military. My brother Don got me started with war stories from past times (typical reading for us were books like Liddell Hart’s Strategy). Besides that, I grew up a Navy brat, mostly in Long Beach, California. My dad, Clifford Christian, was a retired Chief Boatswain’s Mate, and for most of my younger years was Chief of Maintenance at the Long Beach Navy Base. In fact, everyone in my family – 2 sisters, 1 brother – have all been in the service (various branches), and my mother was twice a military widow.
I moved to rural Oregon (to my great culture shock and dismay) in my junior year of high school. There, I soon found one outlet I could really enjoy: Civil Air Patrol, which is a cadet training corps and civilian auxiliary to the Air Force that specializes in search and rescue missions. In my senior year I became cadet commander of my CAP unit. This was fun and kept the military forefront in my mind. There was clearly only one career path for me: the military. It would get me out from under parental thumb, and give me good training and a career start.
I very much wanted to be an officer in the Navy, but we didn’t have the money for college. There were some other obstacles as well, so that much schooling was not a viable option for me at that time. And I needed to take care of my immediate future following graduation from high school. The Delayed Entry Program appealed a lot: you could enlist at age 17, with deferred entry to go active duty when you turned 18, and it locked in a job specialty as soon as you enlisted under DEP. So at 17 I went to talk to recruiters.
My first stop was the Navy, naturally. Unfortunately for me, the year was 1973, and the service was juuuust starting to truly integrate women into the mainstream. From the Navy recruiter I learned, to my horror, that they didn’t station women on ships at all, with the exception of hospital ships. ! That’s not the real Navy! How could I have a proper Navy career and never be on board a ship? I couldn’t see myself in a lifetime of shore duty in the Navy, for crying out loud.
Entirely perturbed by this closed door, I went across the hall and talked to the Army recruiter instead. Turns out they had a happening new program: Warrant Officer flight training. This meant you could become a helicopter pilot and an officer, AND the program had just opened up to women. Woohoo! Sign me up for that!
Off to testing. I passed all the tests, qualified for the helicopter flight program (joy!), but then – then some other recruiter got a look at my test scores, put his arm around my shoulder, and said, “You know, anyone can fly helicopters, but you qualify for something very few people can do. Have you ever thought of doing intelligence work?”
Whoa. Intel? Well, hell yeah, my spy-loving, JamesBondian alter ego was all over that stuff, so he had my attention. We talked more, and this guy did an effective sales job on me. He filled one more hard-to-fill recruitment slot, and I – with an exceptional language aptitude – signed on to become a German language translator in the Army Security Agency.
I went active duty in Seattle, WA, on 12 Aug 1974, thus instantly becoming a Vietnam Era veteran. This also made me a member of the Women’s Army Corps – yes, I am one of the last of the WACs, for they dissolved that organization 6 months after my enlistment, when they integrated the all-women’s service into the regular Army. (At the same time, something similar was happening with the Navy WAVEs, the Air Force WAFs, and other women auxiliaries of other services. 1974 was the big EEO year of military integration.) I am proud, though, to have worn the Pallas Athena on my collar, and to share a part of the experience of that much under-sung branch of the service.
In Basic Training, I was part of the first group of women that they put through combat training. This was an experiment to see if women could handle a forced night march, gas attacks, weapons qualification, etc – the same kind of training the men underwent, and that – in 1975 – would become a standard part of training for all Regular Army service women. Since we were a test case, though, we got to do fun things like qualify on the firing range for the M16 – but not get a marksmanship badge for it. So I could field strip, clean, and reassemble an M16, and demonstrate superior marksmanship with it, but have nothing to show for it in my military record. Feh.
(The gender disparities like that stand out in my mind. I was aware of them at the time; they seem even more egregious now in hindsight. Women’s Basic training: you’re expected to launder your fatigues (an every 2 or 3 day event) and iron everything yourself, to a certain starchily creased perfection. I was flabbergasted to learn that in men’s Basic, they sent their uniforms to the laundry and had this service provided to them. What?!? They didn’t have to spend time washing and ironing? Then why were we? Surely there were other things we could be learning/training/doing during those hours spent perfecting starched creases. Unbelievable. Cultural behavior patterns, unthinking and entrenched. How irritating. But I had no time to be irritated, I had ironing to do…)
Graduated Basic (huzzah). Shipped out to Monterey, CA, for Defense Language Institute German language training. DLI – time to get serious with the immersive language thing. Our teacher, Herr Joachim Porzig, was a one-armed former soldier who’d had his limb blown off on the Russian Front, and hated “those damned Russians.” Ran a tight ship in the classroom. He was quite a character, and a superior teacher. I remain fluent in German to this day, over 3 decades later, and credit that in large part to the foundational instruction Herr Porzig gave me.
Next stop: Goodfellow Air Force Base, San Angelo, TX, for cryptography school. There we learned the fundamentals of our job titles. My MOS was 98G. I notice happily that these days that title is listed in the Army MOS tables as “translator”, as well it should be. In the 1970s and before, however, the associated title was “Radio Intercept Operator”, which gives you an idea of how things to be translated were collected. The training at Goodfellow was relevant to that older, original MOS title, but in fact had only a vague resemblence to the actual work we would be doing on station, and no relationship at all to the work I ended up in.
Here I become vague because the details of my training and job duties were (and are, to the best of my knowledge) still classified. I held a Top Secret/Special Intelligence clearance (still do, I suppose, although it is long inactive now), and moved in some rarified circles, although it all seemed rather routine to our young military eyes at the time.
Duty Station: West Berlin
After Goodfellow – which I remember most fondly for being the place where I bought my 1951 1/2 ton Chevy pickup – I took leave to visit my family, then headed out to my duty station. I was overjoyed to be stationed in Berlin – too cool! West Berlin, the city surrounded by the infamous Berlin Wall, 50 miles from Poland, in the heart of East Germany. A Cold War warrior’s dream. I was assigned to USASAFSB – United States Army Security Agency Field Station Berlin, arriving there 4 Sep 1975. I was in the Kadettenweg barracks, but in 1976 I wrangled a place for myself off base, and started having a real life of my own in Berlin.
In my military work, I started in a job slot that bore a boring and mindnumbing resemblence to my literal MOS title. After some special efforts to make myself stand out and a big dose of good luck, I got diverted into a job where I translated material in direct support of the National Security Agency. From there on out I was in hog heaven. And there I remained, loving my work, but increasingly disturbed with Army mismangement of people. Seeing this was not the place for me to be forever, I got discharged in Berlin in 1978 at the end of my enlistment at the lofty rank of E4 (Spec 4, actually), and stayed there for a time as a civilian.
I eventually returned to the familial fold after some months of side adventures and a life changing experience or two.
So that’s the nutshell of my Army time. A very educational and eye-opening experience it was, and perfect for me at 18.
1. For those not Navy, this is the chief ass kicker and name taker in the non-com ranks aboard ships, or at least it was in the brown-shoe Navy that was my dad’s era. My dad was born in 1909, and joined the Navy when he was 17. Except for a couple years as a civilian in the 1930s (between enlistment stints, when he decided he preferred the Navy to Depression-era America), he was in for nearly 30 years, retiring the year of my birth in 1956.
Dad was captured at the island of Corregidor, the first American-held territory to fall to the Japanese on May 6, 1942, and spent WWII as a POW in Sendai, Japan. He was part of the slave labor force building patrol boats and other vessels for the Japanese navy. The POWs would jimmy the rivets on those vessels, he told me, so when they got out in harbor, they sank. He had some interesting stories.
2. My Dad also thought the Navy should have ships completely crewed by women. He thought they’d out-perform the ships crewed completely by men, and “would make them set to.” Not an idea that caught on, but it has its merits…
3. In retrospect, I think that recruiter also (intentionally?) managed to steer a “girl” away from the boys club that was piloting. In 1973 helicopter pilots had a well-earned hotshot rep from combat duty in Viet Nam. It was not only glamorous, it was a very testosterone-laden job niche. Not something most Vietnam vets (as that recruiter was) were eager to see a bunch of skirts in. I became more aware of this attitude after I was active duty and came to have friends who had been in Nam. On the downside, at the naive age of 17 I got played and sidetracked away from the boys club job – a real social science factoid experience. On the plus side, I did end up in intel, which was its own great adventure. I do wonder, though, about the path not taken, and how my life would be different now if I’d stuck to my original choice in jobs.
4. Sometime after I got out of the Army in 1978, I heard that ASA had been renamed to INSCOM, though I forget what that was an acronym for. I have no idea what that entity is called today.