There’s always been that guilt

Written by Bob on July 12th, 2010

KENYON, MN – I remember the look on my mother’s face when I broke the news.

“Mom, I signed up to join the Marines,” I blurted out somehow knowing that I’d be met with the stunned look of a terrified mother.

It was August 1967. The Vietnam War raged. Every night, the evening news broadcast the numbers to an increasingly skeptical American public…10 Marines killed in hostile action…five Army Rangers died while on patrol…

And now Marie Otto’s son had signed up to join the Marine Corps.

“When do you leave?” mom asked softly, her face ashen as if the blood had suddenly drained to her feet. It’s as if she already feared the worse for her eldest son, just 18.

“I signed up on the buddy plan with Roger Beissel, Whitey Holzmer, and Boots Turek,” I said. “We leave in two weeks for boot camp in San Diego.”

Mom never said much about it after that. Neither did I. She said she’d write every week. Mom kept her promise.

When I signed up, I was flush with the promise of adventure from a smooth talking, ever smiling recruiter.

“We’re sending you to boot camp in San Diego,” he said. “Ever been to California?”

Wow, sunshine, girls, and beaches galore! Or so we thought. Talk about naïve. The four of us must have looked like a stringer of gullible guppies with the hooks sunk deep. Real deep.

But at the time, leaving the country-boy life of rural Minnesota for California, and worldwide adventure, sounded pretty keen to this smoothed face teenager. And hey, I’d be with my buddies. We’d be together in boot camp, looking out for each other under the “buddy plan.”

But as the days passed the euphoria of signing up started wearing off. And fear began shouldering its way in like a grade school bully. I’d lie awake in the quiet, dark of night, alone with my thoughts, wondering, “Am I going to die in Vietnam?”

I heard the nightly news reports, and I saw the body bags. And many of them were filled with dead Marines.

As my shipping out date drew nearer, oh how I wished I could tear up that four-year enlistment. But of course there’s no turning back once you’ve signed up with Uncle Sam.

On August 28th Roger, Whitey, Boots, and I were sworn in the recruiter’s office, in St. Paul. We boarded a plane on a lonely, late night bound for San Diego. Boot camp flew by in eight, short weeks, followed by two weeks of infantry training – learning how to load, shoot, and clean an M-14 rifle.

I was a pretty good shot and qualified as a sharpshooter. Having a good aim might just save my life, I thought.

The four years sped by. And as the smooth talking recruiter promised, I did get to travel – South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, New Jersey, New York, Arizona, California… (minus the beaches and girls). And Okinawa and Japan were also on my travel itinerary.

But Vietnam?

Close call, but I didn’t have to go. I was one of the lucky ones. And I’ve always carried some guilt about that. In my boot camp platoon – 1061 – four of my fellow Marines were killed and many more tramped through the rice paddies and jungles of Vietnam, risking their lives, while I had a safe time of it.

Mom was so relieved that I didn’t have to go. But for me, there’s always been that guilt.

7 Comments so far ↓

  1. doug noble says:

    don’t feel guilty, feel lucky

  2. Bob says:

    I’ve always felt lucky and grateful to have what I have, while others died in combat on foreign soil never to experience the joys we all take for granted.

  3. Franklin Donahue says:

    Bob,

    I hope that you will lose that quilt, you did every thing that a true American hero could, it was their decision and not yours, you would have gone if they would have said so. I also had some guilt for awhile, I was turned down for having flat feet, could run faster than most who were drafted. I got to now some of the guys during the day long physicals before being drafted. When they told me to go home, they did not want me, I felt relief and knew my parents who were crying when I left would be happy, yet I felt that guilt that they were going and I was going home to a safe life. You at least served your country, you should be proud not guilty, I thank you for your service for all of us.

    I was a softball fast pitch pitcher for 26 years. at 69 years of age now I have a bad foot from the flat feet plus numerous other problems. I still have a good arm though, won the Worlds distance contest for disc golf distance throwing( 357ft. 10in ) for my age div. 60-69 . Competition can be addictive, I wish I could still play softball, but I would have to hit over the fence to get on at all.

    I want to wish you the best of luck in life and your sports, you have no reason to feel guilty, while I know that is not all that easy to do. I went to the traveling Vietnam wall to look up a team mate from school, stood there with tears streaming down my face, what a powerful emotional time that was. We should just Honor those that served and those that gave the supreme sacrifice and not let what we could not control play on our minds.

    God bless

    Franklin Donahue

    g

  4. Jack Labor says:

    Otto;

    I too was a young lad of 18 that August of 1967. I found myself in Platoon 1061 and remember it as though it were yesterday, not 40+ years ago. I often wondered what ever happened to the rest of the Platoon. I recall Boots Turek, I ran into him ain Camp Pendleton after ITR. He’s the guy that gave me the nick name “Froggie”. Don’t feel any guilt about not making it to Nam. I did but waslucky enough to not end up in the bush the whole time. Take care.

    Your Fellow Boot Camp Alumni

    Jack Labor

  5. Bob says:

    Hi Jack, fellow 1061 alum, I hope all is going well for you. Pretty good here. Take care, Bob

  6. Roger and Lonna Beissel says:

    Bob Otto Kenyon MN I Just read something about you and the Vietnam War Just to let you know that we lost Whitie a year or so ago and today we just lost Boots today It would be great to hear from if you wish. ROGER Beissel rbeis78112@aol.com

  7. Bob says:

    Roger and Lonna, I am so sorry to hear about the passing of Whitie and Boots. As the years go by, that summer of 1967 was something special and that I will always remember. I will send you and email, and if you can give me your phone number, I will call you. Maybe next time I get home, we can get together for lunch. Hope all is well with you.

    Please give the families my sympathy when you see them.

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