18 at War
By john breneman
Author’s note: Thousands of Americans were drafted into the Vietnam War. Everyone from 18 to 26 were eligible and called to service between 1955 and 1975. My grandfather, Darwin E. Ciccolini, was one of those men. He was called to service in 1965 at the age of 18. Darwin had just finished high school and had never left the central Pennsylvania area. Regardless, he was headed away to Fort Eustis, Virginia to begin his training for Vietnam. Darwin left the service in late 1967 with a rank of Specialist. This story is told from Darwin’s point of view. He was glad to share a portion of his experiences and time in the military in this story. He is proud to have been able to serve his country.
“Well, it finally happened,” I said as I walked back into my house on that breezy summer day in June. I knew it would happen eventually, I thought, as I hurried to my mother to tell her the news. I had been drafted. I was calm, feeling reassured that I did not have to worry when I would receive my card anymore. I was on my way to a place I had only heard of, Vietnam. I left that December, in 1965, saying my farewells while boarding the iron beast for Fort Indiantown Gap. There I, along with many others, rested overnight until we made our long journey south. The snow covered ride lasted sixteen hours until finally arriving at Fort Gordon, Georgia. I felt alone, having never left Pennsylvania before and knowing no one around me. I was excited, however, to see what the future would hold, who I would meet and where I would end up.
I didn’t sleep much that first night. All I could think about was how freezing cold it was. According to our commanding officer, a recruit died of Spinal Meningitis, a very contagious disease that they tried to contain by freezing it out. Soon after we started training I started talking to a man by the name of Charlie Wilson. Wilson had to duck going into every room he entered. He was the second strongest man there, next to me. We were both 18 years old. Wilson and I seemed to be together constantly. “I can’t wait to go over there,” he said as we changed for bed.
“Over where?” I questioned knowing what he meant.
“Why Vietnam, where else?” he said finally.
“Aren’t you scared?” I said quietly so as no one could hear us.
“Maybe a little, but that’s what this training is for, to harden us so we are never scared again.”
His words rang in my head that night like an ever tolling bell. “Was I ready?” I said to myself, knowing my test to find out would come soon enough. We spent eight weeks there, training and working towards one goal: going to and surviving in Vietnam. “We’re moving out!” shouted our commander as we marched towards rows of silver buses. Our next stop was Fort Eustis, Virginia. The last stop before leaving to Vietnam. We started Advanced Infantry Training here, which was mostly rifle training and hand-to-hand combat. While here, we were allowed to take leave and go back home to our families.
I returned to Pennsylvania and caught up with my family and my girlfriend, Bonnie. I returned to Virginia to continue my training knowing I would be in Vietnam in less than six weeks. With two weeks to go, we participated in a drill I would never forget: “Night Infiltration.” For this drill we were told to crawl through thick, black mud on our backs with barbed wire above us. This was to simulate a night infiltration. The Sergeant yelled, “There will be live machine gun fire above your head. Do not stand up or you will be shot!” We laid on our backs for an eternity under the wire. Tracer bullets flew overhead with an array of colors only second to fireworks.
Suddenly, we were halted as a private yelled “go back” over and over again. Someone had been shot ahead of me. We got back to the mess hall, and everyone was clueless about the situation. We questioned how it happened and who it was. I went to find Wilson in the chaos; maybe he knew something. I searched everywhere, but could not find him. I realized a horrible truth at that moment; it had been him. I never discovered if he died or not that day. All I knew was that we were scheduled to be shipped out in two weeks.
We were all given a ten day leave to visit our families before being shipped out. I went home to visit my family and decided to get married before I was shipped out. We returned to Virginia Sunday evening and prepared to leave. It was a brisk Monday morning when we finally received our orders. We were headed to a place we knew nothing about, Vietnam. Our entire company marched towards the same silver buses that took us to Virginia. We were about ready to board when the First Sergeant halted us. He called out, “Private Spreag and Private Ciccolini, step out of formation.” My heart sank. Thousands of questions went through my mind all at once. Why did he call me? Am I in trouble? What will happen to us? The sergeant stared at us and said, “Your orders have been changed. You’re not going to Vietnam right now.” So we stood there with him, silently watching as our friends, who we trained with for weeks, left us behind. I felt as though someone punched me in the gut. I wished they had made a mistake and let me go on that bus.
I turned to the sergeant and asked, “What’s going on? Why are we staying here?”
He spoke, “Oh, I don’t know. All I know is that your orders have been changed.”
“Well, what are we gonna do now?” I asked immediately.
“I guess you’ll just be casual for a while,” he muttered.
I did not sleep that night. The next day we stood in formation as we did everyday but were taken away since we already completed our training. We stayed on base doing minimal work. We mowed grass, cleaned vehicles and drove officers around. We had free roam of Fort Eustis and still I felt something was missing. My friends were gone, possibly even dead, and I could do nothing. “Why us?” I questioned Spreag as we sat down for our meal.
“I don’t know, we may never know, but we were taken out for a reason.” We stayed on base for six more months doing as we pleased, until my new orders were sent out. I was headed for Texas where I would finish out my time in the service as a crew chief.