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My Stint in the Army

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.

Military Family

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[1], 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.

Getting Recruited

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.[2]

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.[3]  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.

Going Active

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…)

Advanced Training

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[4], 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.

Reader Feedback

8 Responses to “My Stint in the Army”

  • Top says:

    Hey Deborah,

    So you know, the Marines do not send out our uniforms to be washed and ironed, I washed mine on the wash racks in MCRD San Diego 1983.

    You had quite an experience! I can see why you’d like Moll’s character in LoM. I have pieces of a script about a shipboard female fire fighter in the Navy. I never completed because I thought it made the Navy look too bad. I haven’t looked into the past couple of years I don’t know if there are women firefighters in the Navy yet.

    You experiences certainly sound like the seeds of a great cold war woman’s version of Bourne Identity! I’ve not seen any Cold Warrior women in print or film, have you? I’m thinking it would be a very cool movie to have a female James Bond type, early 70’s, what do you think?

  • Teramis says:

    Hi, Cary,

    Cool that the WACs and the USMC had something in common. :) Btw my sister was in the Corps, too. She was in JAG at Camp Pendelton when you were at MCRD. Small world and all that. :cool:

    Your shipboard female fire fighter concept is fascinating. I hope you can do something with that.

    You’re right about the lack of female-centric Cold Warrior tales. I can’t think of a one, and I do read in that genre (though not exhaustively). Perhaps not surprisingly, I do in fact have a work in development that is rooted in 1970s intel activities in West Berlin. On the back burner right now (Splintegrate is my present priority), but definitely part of a larger story cycle I want to write.

    Lots of great stuff there for story grist. Women in that field have been invisible in story and media, that’s for sure – except for the occasional film like La Femme Nikita – which deals with assassination, not intel work per se – that entire genre seems totally unexplored. Gotta remedy that!!!

  • Top says:

    Hey Teramis,

    You experience as Intel should make a great story I hope you get an opportunity to do it one day.

    Funny to learn your sister was in the Corps at MCRD the same time I was, though in very different positions. I’m sure she has some great stories of the boy’s gun club as well. In 83 when I came in I wasn’t fond of the idea of women in the military. However I ended up meeting some really motivated, hard working women. I also met many that tried to take advantage of being one of the few women in a unit and had guys doing everything for them, but I blamed the men for enabling that. I ended up not being liked very much by those men and women, but I figured the Corps wasn’t about being liked.

    An all women crewed Navy vessel is a really interesting idea and talk about conflict!

    I was an Aviation Ordnanceman in the Corps. I retired as a Master Sergeant in 2004. I did a short tour in Desert Storm in ’91. It’s amazing to see how much things have changed in 20 years. I think that’s why I liked Life on Mars, just seeing how someone works around the huge cultural, economic and social differences of the times.

    Great talking to you, Teramis.

    Cary

  • Teramis says:

    I think that’s why I liked that series too. How intriguing it would be to be in 1973 again, only as the person I am now! But then, I’ve always been wanting a time-travel machine since I figured out the concept.

    Nice talking to you too, Cary.

  • Laura Marshallsay says:

    Deborah,

    I read your story with great interest. I am a graduate student at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, doing my master's thesis on the transition from the WACs to the integrated Army. I'd love to chat if you have a few minutes to talk a bit more about your experiences.

    Thanks, I hope to hear from you soon.

    –Laura Marshallsay
    U.S. Army, V Corps HQ Frankfurt, 1983-1986

  • Judy Simon says:

    San Angelo, Texas. Went there every summer of my childhood to visit my aunts and uncles. Fished in the Concho River with my Aunt Minnie. My sister attended college at ASU – Angelo State University. The closest I got to Goodfellow was driving by it, thought.

  • Judy Simon says:

    My girlfriend, who died last year, was a Hospital Corpsman in the Navy, stationed in California and then Virgina in the mid 80's. I think it was the best time in her life, she loved the military.

  • RetiredSargeant says:

    Glad I came across this post. I found it with a Google search for "Herr Porzig". I was also ASA and attended DLI for German in 1966-67. I had Herr Porzig as well, but our relationship was not too good. His adjective for me was "faul", as in "Du bist faul, Herr Baldwin!". It was not until 2009 that I was diagnosed as having Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, which explained his opinion of me and a lot of other things as well. Other instructors I can remember were: Herr Gherke, Herr Von Richter, Herr Trautman, and Herr England or English, can't remember. Many good memories of that time other wise. We used to spend a lot of time down at Angelo's on the Wharf.

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Author Deborah Teramis Christian


Teramis wrote her first book at age 9, but like all good literary lizards has taken her time charging upon the market. Finally in a situation where she can write full time, she is becoming the Dragon, Unleashed, or a close facsimile thereof. Roar, said the saur.

Teramis On the Web

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This military science fiction anthology contains "Live Fire," Christian's Tiptree Award-nominated short story set in the Sa'adani Empire, the setting of her science fiction novels. Now available at Amazon in print and Kindle editions.