Not an American Sniper

By Lloyd Graff

Lloyd Graff at Basic Training, 1968

My wife and I went to see Clint Eastwood’s film, American Sniper. We thought it was a well made movie, Bradley Cooper was superb as Chris Kyle, but we walked out halfway through. Two tours in Iraq were all we cared to watch.

For me, it brought back sad memories of my youth – the Vietnam War – the war I was supposed to fight in, but managed to avoid.

I did go into the Armed Services. I left for Fort Jackson in South Carolina for Basic Training on New Year’s Day 1968, but I went as a member of the Illinois National Guard.

I figured I had a better than 50-50 chance I would not go to Nam. I expected to come home in five months and go back to college, writing papers and taking exams, not shooting at Viet Cong in black “pajamas” waiting to ambush me in the rice paddies.

At Fort Jackson I was one of two Guardsmen amongst my training company of 300 guys. The war was at its peak and the Tet Offensive was starting. In my bunk there was a sense of fear and anger in the older drafted guys. For the young kids there was excitement in some, bewilderment in others. For the Hispanic kids there was a feeling of displacement. They may have been saying, “This isn’t my war, but I’m here, so I better learn how to be a soldier.”

I was a journalist by training so I tried to assume a bit of detachment. I wanted to record the details in my head to recount later. I also wanted to believe I wasn’t going to Vietnam to keep from freaking out.

In my bunk one third of the guys were older and had experience in college. They were all trying to figure out a way not to go to Vietnam. They knew I was Guard, but they showed no resentment toward me, which I found surprising. Were it the other way around, I think I would have been jealous.

The training sergeants were generally professional and fair, except for a newly minted one who had never gone to war. He hated me and devoted himself to torturing me when he could. He used crude psychological warfare, telling me that all the Guardsmen were going to be activated and sent to Nam. He was a really shrimpy guy, a foot shorter than me, from New York. He always wore his Smokey the Bear hat to make himself look taller, but I think he hated me even more vehemently because of a sense of inferiority over his height.

It was winter at Fort Jackson and everybody got sick. Some people wanted to end up in the infirmary, but that ended when one of my bunkmates went to the infirmary and never returned. It was announced that he died of meningitis. We got our first passes right after that announcement. I went immediately to the biggest hospital in Columbia, South Carolina, and marched into the Emergency Room. The doctor looked at my throat and gave me a shot of penicillin. He assured me I did not have meningitis, and I felt like a new man. I went to the Union of the University of South Carolina and luxuriated in the company of college students. I watched basketball on TV, I even called a sorority and told them I was available. Amazingly, some young women came to meet me and one ended up inviting me to a big dance.

Then it was back to Fort Jackson. I learned how to shoot a rifle, take it apart and put it back together. It was an old M-1, not the M-16, because the Army was short on rifles in early 1968. We got into good physical condition if we could stay healthy in the raw weather. We learned how to march and slither on our bellies. The highlight of Basic was the obstacle course with live ammunition being fired over our heads as we burrowed under barbed wire and traversed a 300-yard course that seemed like it was three miles.

I graduated from Basic in eight weeks and stayed at Fort Jackson for specialty training in “Communications.” I had thought maybe I could use my writing background, but “Communications” was stringing wire on telephone poles.

I became adept at climbing 35-foot poles using metal spikes on the insides of my legs. Got a lot of splinters, but it was easier than Basic and the weather was improving.

Things went fairly smoothly and it was looking like I was going to survive Fort Jackson, but on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated. There were riots in Los Angeles, Chicago and elsewhere. The National Guard was mobilized around the country. It was a terrible time in America but it also meant Guardsmen in big cities were needed to back up the police. I realized I probably was not going to end up in Nam like most of the guys I had spent four months with in South Carolina.

Selfishly, I just wanted to get home. I felt bad for everybody headed to Saigon, but I just wanted to not think about the killing. When I got home I hugged my parents and quickly left for college. It was a wonderful place to try to forget about the war and all the good guys who were sent to that awful place.

Question:  Where were you during Vietnam?

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24 thoughts on “Not an American Sniper

  1. Robert

    Lloyd, regardless of your level of service, thank you for your service. I wasn’t even a gleam in my father’s eye when Vietnam happened, but I have nothing but respect for the men who served in any capacity.

  2. Jeff

    I was 15 and sweating. I remember every night on the news them announcing how many Americans were killed in Nam that day.
    Thankfully it was over before I turned 18.

  3. Robert Also

    As a young kid raised on John Wayne movies and a WWII decorated pilot for a father, my fear was not being sent to Vietnam, it was that the war would end before I got there. Ah the stupidity and ignorance of youth. Two tours of duty (1966 – 1968) cured me of my desire to fight in a war.

  4. Gary S

    In Mar. the ship I was on returned from ‘Nam and North Korea. Remember the USS Pueblo was taken by the North Koreans and my ship did duty there for that. I spent 3 cruises in the Gulf of Tonkin for a total of 36 months. I was a gunner’s mate on a supply ship that didn’t do much shooting but worked my but off while there. We resupplied other ships.

  5. Jack

    I was 10 years old in 68.
    I remember seeing the nightly news and stories about us fighting Vietcong guerrillas, wondering why are we fighting gorillas.
    Have a few friends that were there. Heard some stories.

    I just read a great book having to do with Vietnam. Next of Kin by Tom Reilly, excellent book.

  6. Seth Emerson

    Lloyd – I was drafted at about the same time you went to basic. (Jan 68) We went to Ft. Lewis, WA. They had the same menegitis issues you had. We slept in 30 degree weather with the windows open. Us draftees did have a misplaced contempt for the other types of trainees. Our serial numbers were “US” meaning draftees. There were RA (Regular Army, meaning enlistees) Those were “Regular Assholes”, NG (The “No Goods”), etc. etc.) Normal defensive measures for new recruits with an Asian war looming, and concern about being “cannon fodder”. My 1969 Vietnam service was an experience, but with no obvious outside damage. But it has, I am sure, influenced my outlook on the military, in all aspects. I will probably miss the Sniper movie, as I have Private Ryan, and I can’t return to the Vietnam wall in DC, either, too many friends there. Although I supported the shift to the “volunteer” army, I think the draft, if fairly applied, could be a societal equalizer. I remember the college professor whose deferments had run out. He worked for me, a Spec 5, in a tactical operations center on overnight shifts in Phu Loi.

  7. Mike T.

    I was draft lottery number 68 in the first year that nobody was drafted. Nixon will always be one of my heroes.

  8. Marshall Sloan

    In ’68 I was I was a Jounior in High School expecting I would have to go, so I continued with Jr.ROTC and Civil Air Patrol at the local Air Force Base where I eventually became Squadron Commander. I figured if I had to go I wanted to maximize my chances by doing what I could to become an officer. I was an Air Force brat to a career Officer, so dodging the draft never even occurred to me, and I suspect wouldn’t have been tollerated. turns out I drew a high number in the draft lottery and just continued with college, never having served, the greatest regret of my life. I’ve always felt I missed a huge chunk of my life by not enlisting. I believe it was a national disgrace the way Viet Nam era vets were treated when they returned, just complete liberal ignorance on display!

  9. Jeff

    I was still in high school when they ended the draft, and when they pulled out of Nam. For a while I thought about volunteering into the military. The military, sans the Viet nam War, was a pretty good place to get a college education, and being a poor boy from the South, it sounded like an opportunity I might should explore. Then I saw the way the military was cutting people loose, right and left, for nearly anything. And figured out that if they didn’t need those guys, they didn’t need me. So my generations war went into the history books completely without me. Looking back now, know now what I didn’t know then, I figure I’m at least as far ahead as I would have been going in back then. Didn’t miss a thing. For those who did go, I have no ill will. But I’m glad I didn’t.

  10. Dave

    I did see the movie American Sniper. I think that movie accurately portrays what happens to the young Americans that are sent into any conflict, and how it affects the rest of your life. Actions and Visions leave indelible images burnt into your brain that you can never forget and have continued recall of for the rest of your life. I jointed the USAF in 1963 to avoid the draft, hoping to select a career field. After several TDY tours in Southeast Asia where we supplied the conflict in Viet Nam I was sent into Saigon’s Air base to change an engine on one of our aircraft that broke down there. After returning to the US, I volunteered to return for a tour in country. I just felt that I needed too be a part of this, and experience this conflict first hand in country. i returned to VN and served a tour from 8/66 to 7/67 at Phan Rang Air Base. We lost 58,500 or so American lives there, most of them 18, 19, & 20 years old. I would have thought as a Country we would have learned a lesson there.

  11. Steve

    My brother and brother-in-law all went to Viet Nam. I turned 18 one week after they ended the draft – I was at home either writing letters to my brother or doing homework. Thanks all service people for your dedication, bravery and service from WWII – Afgahnistan, we love you.

  12. Rod

    I read with interest your comments on your active duty experience. I also was in the Guard and did basic training at Ft. Jackson. After basic, I went through Field Wireman’s School at Ft. Jackson (MOS 36K20) as you did, except I began in July 1968.

    When I arrived, I knew exactly how long my active duty would last, which training company and AIT company I would be assigned to. It was gut wrenching watching the young men that were going to be assigned to combat duty in Viet Nam and the unknowns they would face. I have often wondered how many of them made it through safely.

  13. John

    # 40 in the first draft lottery. I knew I would be going and received my draft notice in January. Went to the local draft board and found out they were drafting Army and Marines so I signed up for 3 years and received lots of training in electronics for 1-1/2 years. Spent time at Ft Lewis and Ft Monmouth. Went to Germany for 1-1/2 years. Lots of my buddies went to Nam and I felt bad I didn’t get to go but it turned out alright. Wasn’t treated very good serving during that time and when I flew home when I got out, I changed out of my uniform in the airport so I wouldn’t get persecuted by the public. It taught me a lot about people and cultures of the world and I was glad to have served looking back.

  14. Raj

    I don’t see why you would have walked out of the movie if you had never served in battle. Your experience vs. the tale of Chris Kyle show two entirely different levels of commitment. Your involvement (or lack thereof) in Vietnam pales in comparison Kyle’s bravery in battle and shows zero commitment or caring of your fellow veterans (other than feeling sorry for them) to the extent that Kyle did in risking his life to work with men so screwed up from war that he put himself at risk to help them. As far as where I was during Vietnam, I was attending the funerals of two of my older cousins who died there, while you were in college. I’m not only not impressed by your views, but disgusted you would even speak the name of a true American war hero in the same breath as your cowardly experiences during our time at war.

  15. Robert S.

    This is in reply to Raj 5:50 comments…….
    I totally disagree with your unproductive comments about Lloyd. In the USA each person has the right to speak his mind on issues. However, verbally attacking another’s opinion with your slanted view does nothing to promote a open dialogue I’m sure Lloyd had hoped to promote on the subject. There was a reason it was called a draft LOTTERY. The entire purpose was to allow individuals to GAME the system to what ever end they desired. You could enlist, defer, claim CO status or any other result. I went the 2S route until Defense Secretary Laird annouced that enough inductees were in the pipeline for the year and no more were expected to be drafted. Since my draft number was 92 and they had gone to at least 125 each year I elected to request being reclassified 1A in Dec.
    The following January I was reclassified in a 1H group who would be called if they went thru all 365 numbers for that current year. I played the game by their rules and created my own future. Some would win and some would lose. Leason to be learned, life is not fair……….

    1. joe

      Why is it that people like you attack anyone with a strong opinion against what you believe. ANYONE puts their life on the line so I can pursue any path I want DOES not need ANYONE ?American? suggesting that freedom is anything but Free has no rights at all. It was less than intelligent on your part.

  16. Lloyd Graff

    I wrote this recollection of my wartime experience not for self glorification. I am not proud of my Vietnam War experience but I took a practical approach to what I viewed as a n illadvised war that was killing my peers by the thousands, and I was going to do what I could to stay alive. A high school classmate named Rich Deuter had volunteered for the Air Force and was an early casualty over Haiphong. I joined the Guard after putting my name on waiting lists of six Reserve units around Chicago. I also had some political Clout which always helps in Chicago. It may have helped get me into the Guard though I would have gotten into the Army Reserve without it. Surviving the War was my goal and I succeeded and I make no apology. My sadness is for the 58,000 who died and all the others who were wounded physically and psychologically.

    1. Victoria Adams

      Lloyd Graff you are a wuss in the truest sense. You couldn’t explain yourself out of a paper bag. You can keep trying, but personally, I am thoroughly disgusted by your post.

  17. joe

    Mr. Graff,
    I work for a rather large company and deal with a lot of machine shops along the way. I know that the vets from the Nam have a hard time. Forget about the dead. What have you done for the living who survived. I was too young but I am ashamed that you would even post comments that talk about the dead. The living are still dealing with it and you should be ashamed. WHAT have you done to help them ? Throw a coin in a cup or hire some of them knowing they can’t always deal with life having watched them end. You disappoint me tremendously.

    You have prospered by the survivors minds seeing what not should have been seen and I am curious what you have done for ANYONE who survived to give you your freedom of will and pursuit of money and happiness !

  18. Terry

    I rather admire your courage and your blog as well! Surely you must have imagined that the dyspeptic troglodytes and their Swiftian yahoos here in the US would attack your expressions. Oscar Wilde was correct; “patriotism is a virtue of the vicious” and some of your reader’s comments validate the sentiment. Keep blogging!

  19. Raj

    My hasty response to Mr. Graff’s blog was “liked” by many people. I am from a long line of veterans from many wars and from just about every branch, so I felt it right, as did Mr. Graff, to express my opinion respective of his experience with the Vietnam War. It is good to know that there are more Patriots out there than the “others,” whom like my predecessors and those men and women currently enlisted, have and will continue to defend with their lives. Why should they do this? Because there are those among us with enough courage and love in their hearts and souls to sacrifice their own lives for them, not because of their race, religion, political views, etc. but because of the love and dedication they have to our beautiful nation that was fought for (The Revolutionary War…OMG..remember?) and founded on freedom and the pursuit of happiness. The various opinions and comments evoked by Mr. Graff’s blog are priceless; it is for this type of freedom that I know that the lives of all those souls lost in our country’s battles, including those POW’s and MIA’s who have not yet been found, have not been in vain. Thank you, Mr. Graff, for giving us the opportunity to express ourselves in this venue; promise us, though, that you will go and see the rest of “American Sniper”…you will then see the true impact of Chris Kyle’s story and the ultimate sacrifice he made to those he refused to leave behind after his own 4 tours of duty. Thank you.


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