Salute to a Special Friend on Veteran's Day
Today is recognized in the United States as Veteran's Day, observed annually on Nov. 11. It honors military veterans and coincides with other holidays, including Armistice Day and Remembrance Day in other countries, that mark the end of World War I. To commemorate this day, I've chosen to salute a hometown friend of mine, Gary Babbitt, for his service in Vietnam.
It was December of 1966. The Monkees had recently released their self-titled debut album featuring "Last Train to Clarksville." The song had topped the Billboard Top 100 the previous month.
Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart had written it as a protest to the Vietnam War. But, in order to get it recorded, they had to disguise it. As a result, the majority of people remain unaware of this fact.
It was before protest songs became fashionable and blatantly obvious.
It's about a guy who's been drafted and is about to board a train headed to an army base, from which he expects to be sent off to Vietnam. That's why he says, "I don't know if I'm ever coming home."
I've linked a Youtube video of the Monkees performing the song at the end of this post.
Well, my good friend, Gary Babbitt, 19-years-old at the time, was also on his way to that base. It was Fort Campbell.
Fort Campbell, which sits astride Clarksville, Tennessee, and Hopkinsville, Kentucky, served as a major induction center during
the Vietnam War. It's currently home to the 101st Airborne Division and the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment.
He'd left junior college following his freshman year, losing his deferment.
He fully expected to be drafted. It was early in the war and the lottery had yet to be enacted.
He served two years.
"It'll be 47 years next month since I was released from active duty," he remarked. "Wow. I can't believe it's been that long."
After arriving at the fabled base, he was instructed to undergo a series of tests to determine his assigned duties..
Not everyone ended up as an infantryman toting the recently introduced M-16 assault rifle.
Babbitt ended up in the Medical Service Corp., in which he was trained to become a corpsman, more commonly referred to as a medic.
He was sent to Fort Sam Houston, in San Antonio, Texas, which serves as the headquarters for the Army Medical Command (MEDCOM) and the Army Medical Department Center and School (AMEDD).
The Combat Medic Memorial, pictured above, is located on the grounds of that installation.
After 16 weeks of advanced individual training, he was sent back to Fort Campbell.
From there, he was sent to Vietnam.
In the summer of 1967, he flew into Da Nang, South Vietnam, the site of a major U.S. airbase. The 9th U.S. Marine Expeditionary force had waded ashore there in 1965, representing the first combat troops to be deployed in the war.
From there, it was off to An Khe, where he would spend the next three-and-half months.
The rudimentary base at An Khe was carved out of a remote valley in the shadow of Hon Kong Mountain in the Central Highlands. It was referred to by its inhabitants, the 1st Air Cavalry Division, as the "Golf Course." An Khe is highlighted in red on the adjoining map.
"It was more than interesting," says Babbitt, who's now 69 years old. "I couldn't do now what I did then, like going on patrol. "
At the time, the base camp featured no permanent structures, which is why it resembled a golf course.
"Early on, everything was kind of fluid," added Babbitt. "Ammunition was kept in tents and the enemy blew one up."
Babbitt was wounded during the attack and ended up in an evacuation hospital similar to the one depicted in the late-1980s network television show, "China Beach."
"It was a small wound," recalls Babbitt. "But, I found out I was a bleeder. I didn't even know it. It was no big deal."
He was eventually sent back to Fort Campbell, where he was assigned to the dispensary.
"It was boring," says Babbitt, having been relegated to conducting routine activities, such as physicals.
"I knew a guy in the department of personnel and I told him I wanted to do something more interesting."
His buddy told him about an opening in Western Europe, which turned out to be in Germany.
As a member of the replacement battalion, he was sent to Pirmesens, Germany, near Frankfurt.
He was assigned to the 33rd Missile Battalion, which was located 40 miles away in Zweibruchen.
He was now an operating medic, but, most of his operating was done while traveling around Germany with a buddy who was a Northern Cheyenne Indian.
"Europeans were enamored with American Indians, says Babbitt, having only seen them in the movies. We were once sent a bottle of wine by a German woman and her daughter while having dinner. All they wanted to do was meet a real American Indian. We kindly obliged them."
It gave me a chance to test my questionable German, he added, which was adequate enough to converse.
The women didn't speak English.
"Heidelberg was beautiful then, even only 20 years after the war," says Babbitt, referring to World War II. "A restaurant owner said he'd teach us to speak German if we promised to eat and drink at his place on weekends. We were there in 1968 to see Pablo Casals."
Casals, from Catalonia, Spain, is regarded as the pre-eminent cellist of the first half of the 20th century.
They even hopped on a bus and visited East Berlin using their military IDs.
"The border guards stared us down. It was just intimidation," says Babbitt. "We were young, we didn't give a shit about that."
After the medic he replaced returned from visiting family at Fort Dix, New Jersey, Babbitt was flown home on a DC-8.
"That's what gave me the wanderlust (having seen Europe).That's the good part," says Babbitt. "I've been all over the world since then."
Although he was back home, he served out his time as part of the Ready Active Reserve.
"We called it the Radio Active Reserve. Actually, I was never officially notified when my service was up."
He used the G.I. Bill to return to college, while also working in production control at Sundstrand Aviation.
Now known as Hamilton-Sundstrand, the company remains world-renowned for its contributions to the aerospace and airline industry, as well as the United States Defense Department.
They were involved in the design of the F-22 Raptor, which is the country's latest tactical fighter jet.
Upon graduation from nearby Northern Illinois University with a bachelor's degree in music, he soon realized he probably wasn't going to realize his dream.
"My plan to become a famous jazz musician didn't work out," says Babbitt, who plays an assortment of reed instruments.
He would accept a position at National-Detroit Inc., a longtime manufacturer of pneumatic sanders. He was laid off upon completion of a government contract in 2010. As a result, he retired, after having been with the company for 38 years.
"I enjoyed making things," says Babbitt. " I did lots of things there. I didn't leave by choice."
The local facility was shutdown in 2015 and production was moved to Clarence, New York.
His wanderlust is what's kept him busy.
"I've been to 11 countries in Western Europe and 49 of the 50 states," Babbitt says with a smile. "Oregon is the last one."
He's also visited nine of the 10 Canadian provinces.
However, he doesn't foresee a return trip to Vietnam.
"Been there, done that," he says. "I have coffee at home from Vietnam, but I don't like it."
Babbitt doesn't belong to any veteran's organizations, although he lost a friend to the lingering effects of Agent Orange, which was a chemical often sprayed throughout Vietnam to clear vegetation.
"Everything shuts down at once," he recalls. "It's kind of ominous. He was in his early-to-mid 30s."
Ironically, our hometown of Rockford, Illinois, is the national headquarters of VietNow, which is a veteran's organization.
It's devoted to serving all veterans and their families from 1957 to the present. They offer help to veterans who not only suffer from Agent Orange, but from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), among other issues.
I've provided a link to their website below.
A monument was recently erected to honor the nine local veterans who have died as the result of coming into contact with Agent Orange. Unfortunately, the organization expects to be adding more names to the list.
It stands near the LZ Peace Memorial, which resembles The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington D.C.
Etched upon it are the names of 75 local veterans who died in service to their country in Vietnam.
Nonetheless, Babbitt appears to be doing just fine and is enjoying his retirement.
We regularly meet for fish on Friday nights at our home away from home: the Latham Tap.
We met through a mutual friend, who's one of the charming bartenders.
Follow the link below to watch and listen to the Monkees perform "Last Train to Clarksville." It's a clip from their popular television show from the mid-1960s.
The link below will take you to the VietNow homepage, which provides information regarding their ongoing efforts.
To read more articles honoring veterans from around the world, please follow the link below. It will take you to the Veteran's to Honor Hive. I am proud to be a co-administrator of the hive.