Paul Stagg – Gun Crew / FDC – Part One

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Two Broken Bones

Out of high school I got a football scholarship to Shenandoah College. I was a starter on defense and on special teams. I was looking forward to the next football season when the players under scholarship were told the football program was disbanding. The school was converting from a two-year junior college to a four-year school, and all funding was going to that transition. But I wanted to play football, and through my high school coach got an invitation to walk on at the University of Richmond, a private university and very expensive. Being the oldest of eight children my parents could not afford to help so it was my baby: I needed to earn a scholarship.

I played defensive back and was one of the fastest guys on the team. Then that first semester I broke my collar bone. I was healing pretty well, but I came back too soon and a second break on the same collar bone in the same place ended my shot at a scholarship. I could not afford the second semester and did not have the time to gather the funds, so I dropped out and went to work full time. You know what happened. August 12, 1969 at Goochland Courthouse, Virginia I boarded a James River Bus to downtown Richmond where I reported to the military induction center. I was 19 years old.

Bitter Sweet Christmas

I met Linda at my seventh grade graduation ceremony. She went to a different elementary school and came to the ceremony with one of my best friends. Back then elementary school went to seventh grade, and high school began at eighth grade. We knew each other in high school and first started dating in the 11thgrade. She went to college at William and Mary here in Virginia, and I attended Shenandoah College. We still saw each other that first year of college. When I went to the University of Richmond and then began working full-time we saw each other more often. We were pretty much committed to each other at that point. When I got drafted I went down to William and Mary and told her. She was a little emotional. During basic training at Fort Benning she visited me twice, one of the times with my mother for graduation. From Fort Benning I went straight to Fort Sill for artillery training.

Before going to Vietnam I got a 30 day leave over the 1969 Christmas holiday. While at home I bought a diamond engagement ring and on Christmas Eve at Linda’s home I gave her the wrapped present. She opened it and immediately jumped up and ran to her parent’s bedroom to show them. She didn’t say yes or no, but she was so excited I was pretty sure it was a yes.

I remember a popular song playing a lot on the radio. “Leaving on a Jet Plane” by Peter, Paul and Mary. It was certainly apropos for my situation.

Two and Out

I volunteered for field artillery during basic training. My thinking was that being a draftee I was definitely headed for Vietnam and likely to be in a combat branch. So it was which of the combat branches would you like? Artillery was something that interested me, and I thought it was better than being a jungle bunny. A lot of guys were putting down transportation, logistics and that kind of thing to avoid a combat branch. Most of those guys got combat infantry anyway.

We took a bunch of tests the first couple weeks of basic, and I guess based on my scores the Army offered me Vietnamese language training and helicopter school. Helicopter required a full six-year commitment as I remember, and language school at least four, I know it was more than two. Linda and I had plans when I got out, so I declined both offers. It was a very quick decision. Two years and I’m out of here.

Fort Sill

 A sergeant came into our barracks and asked for volunteers for truck driver training to drive the deuce-and-a-half and five-ton trucks that hauled artillery pieces to the firing range. Truck driver school was one week, and then assimilation back into artillery training. When I was a platoon leader in basic training at Ft. Benning I did not have to pull guard duty or KP, and here it was the same for the truck drivers. I grew up on a farm and I loved to drive tractors and trucks, so it appealed to me, with the added bonus I would not have to pull guard duty or KP. So off I went into a separate barracks with the other driver volunteers.

That Faraway Look

On the way to Vietnam we stopped for refueling in Anchorage, where I remember the frigid walk to the terminal in jungle fatigues. At another refueling stop in Tokyo our plane landed about the same time another plane landed from Vietnam. We were all in one big room: new guys on our way to Vietnam and veterans coming home. We were separated by a kind of portable fence that was about three feet high. As the Vietnam vets were gathering in their section of the room, we were gathering at our end, and that’s when the Nam veterans started giving us a hard time and taking quite a delight in it. “We are on our way home, and you’re going to Vietnam. You cherries got 365 days to go.” That was the first time I heard the word cherry, I just didn’t understand what that meant. I guess I found out soon enough as I transitioned into Vietnam. Others of the vets were quiet and kept to themselves, and they were probably the combat veterans. I’m sure the harassment was from the REMFs (Rear Echelon Mother Fuckers)and not from the combat guys. You could tell the field combat vets because they had that kind of faraway look.