Slipping Into Darkness: A Year at Ft. Bragg

Ft. Bragg teemed with so many Vietnam war returnees that the nearby town, Fayetteville, was known as Fayette-Nam. Some of these soldiers brought home lawlessness, drug addiction and even murder. My personal remedy for this madness was to get out of there as often as possible. 

HOME OF TROUBLED WARRIORS: Ft. Bragg, NC, was home to the creme de la creme of Vietnam returnees.

The star defense witness at my 1970 court martial at Fort Bragg, NC, was fellow soldier Ed Ossa. Ossa corroborated my story that I never disobeyed an order to remove a beaded necklace I wore while in uniform. With his wire-rimmed glasses, pale complexion, slight and decidedly non-athletic physique, he resembled a miniature Robert McNamara, the bookish Secretary of Defense whose ultimately wretched analytical strategy helped delve Presidents Kennedy and then Johnson deeper and deeper into the Vietnam quagmire. Intelligent, fast talking and sharp tongued, Ossa was one of a handful of merry pranksters that I palled around with at Ft. Bragg. He was decidedly my favorite partner in crime for the better part of the year before I shipped out to Vietnam–November 1969 to October 1970. I look back on those months as among the strangest periods of my life.

Ossa was not a two-year draftee like me. He enlisted in the Army for four years with an agreement he would attend the Defense Department’s select military language school to study Farsi, then go on to his dream job as a Persian linguist, assigned in Iran. Ossa spent some of his childhood years in Iran when his father was an oil company engineer there. He longed to return and turned to the US Army for his ticket back. He did his language training in the seaside village of Monterey, CA, where Army life was more akin to that of a college campus than a military base. And then Ossa was totally betrayed.

At his Ft. Bragg orientation interview where we first met, the first sergeant reviewing Ed’s file remarked, “I see you are a Persian linguist.” Ed answered proudly in the affirmative. Surely, at the post’s elite JFK Special Warfare Center, Ossa’s skills and expertise would be put to good use. There was a pause. Then First Sergeant enquired: “Can you drive a truck?” Ossa got assigned to the Motor Pool. His bitterness from that moment never healed.

I fared slightly better. Based on the designation of “Civilian Acquired Skills,” which I earned by dint of my former life as a Wall Street Journal copy-boy and college journalism major, I was expecting a publicity or news reporter assignment. Instead, I was shoehorned into a research job.  No complaint from me. At least it was at a desk.

Ed and I were assigned to a highly specialized air-mobile PsyOps battalion. Everything at Ft. Bragg was “air-mobile,” the Defense Department flavor of the week at the time. PysOps–Psychological Operations–was propaganda. We created leaflets and radio broadcasts. We did language translations, exotic cultural and political research. I wrote background reports for far away countries I had never heard of at the time, such as Malawi, a landlocked country in southeast Africa. The military wanted a contingency playbook for every country in the world.  I was certain that such plans were better prepared by diplomatic wonks somewhere among the vast bureaucracy of Washington, DC. But if the US Army wanted me to use the base library encyclopedia to write essentially junior high school level social studies reports, so be it. They even gave me a “SECRET” stamp to mark my inexpertly typewriters pages.  I used that stamp to adorn many of the letters I sent home to Natalie.  Wasn’t I clever and witty? Natalie did not think so.

My assignment was considered “Permanent Party.” An oddly named status, considering it was neither. I thought I’d be stationed at Ft. Bragg until my hitch was up in 1971. But mid-way through, there was my court martial.  Then my orders for Vietnam. Not so much permanence or party on those fronts.

The best description of permanent party status is a 9 to 5 job with military adjustments. The first of which was the hours: more like 7am to 4pm. There was an early morning inspection, a uniform to be worn during duty hours, and military rules and regulations a lot stricter and confining than civilian ones. They applied both on and off the base. But evenings and weekends for the most part were free time: civilian clothes, personal vehicles, off-base travel within a reasonable distance. Meals and lodging were provided. But so long as you showed up for morning formation, kept your hair cut and your face shaved, you could sleep and eat where you wanted.

The huge size of Ft. Bragg was beyond any of my expectations. It stretched more than 250 square miles across three North Carolina counties. At the height of the war it was home to nearly 60,000 soldiers and their families—dependents, the Army liked to call these mostly wives and children.  It was, at that time, one of the largest US military installations in the world, which was somewhat ironic. My future base in Vietnam, Chu Lai, was also a sprawling, largest-of-its-kind installation.  At both locations, I continually felt like a lost boy in a sea of khaki green madness. Did I really belong in either place?

Ft. Bragg was named in the Jim Crow era for confederate army general, Braxton Bragg, sometimes cited as the most cantankerous and hated military officer of the 19th century. In Vietnam, soldiers who had a beef with their superiors sometimes reverted to “fraggings,” rolling a hand grenade into their hootch. In Bragg’s case, a disgruntled soldier exploded a 12-pound artillery shell under his bunk, which he survived. We have something in common, Bragg and I. We were both court-martialed for disobedience. Where we differ is that I was found innocent; he was convicted. Another difference, he lost the crucial Battle of Chattanooga, one of the Confederate Army’s most disastrous defeats in the Civil War.

With the war beginning to wind down—though it would last three more years for US troops and fully another five for the Vietnamese—not too many soldiers besides myself were heading to Vietnam from Ft. Bragg in 1970.  But the place teemed with those who had been there and returned.  In fact, the town outside the gates–Fayetteville–was better known then by it’s unofficial monicker, “Fayette-Nam.”

Ft. Bragg was the home of the creme de la creme of US Army warriors:  The 82nd “All American” Airborne Division, the Green Berets, Delta Force, and more. Officers and commandos from all over the world—at that time, predominantly from Southeast Asian countries such as Laos, Thailand, Indonesia, and Vietnam—came to the JFK Warfare Center for the latest and greatest instruction on military theory. Small in stature, brown in color, holding hands—which was an accepted custom in their homeland—these men often turned heads as they walked along the well manicured stone paths of the Warfare Center, a sleek, contemporary mini-campus anchored by a shockingly unmilitary white edifice. The foreign soldiers were a remarkable contrast to the strapping, mostly-Caucasian, US troops that tended the grounds. 

If military victories could be spawned in the classroom, here would be their genesis. Less inspiring was the hopelessness, the futility, the everyday ennui of the thousands of Vietnam War returnees elsewhere at sprawling Ft. Bragg. Substance abuse was a rampant problem in Southeast Asia where marijuana, opium, and heroin were easily accessible. At Ft. Bragg, drug use was a nightmare. Narcotics, psychopharmaceuticals such as LSD, mescaline and peyote, were everywhere. I recall driving around the base, seeing soldiers in uniform and military vehicles passing joints in the open.  On duty, off-duty, around the clock, idle soldiers turned on, got high. There was little meaningful work for combat veterans to do at Ft. Bragg. I recall thinking the only way to clean the place up would be to pour 10 feet of concrete across the entire base and start over from scratch.

Fairly regularly, Ed and I and other buddies would hang out in our off hours at a green park in neighboring Fayetteville, where we’d easily score whatever type of drugs we desired.  I stayed mostly with weed, but Ft. Bragg was where I did my first ever LSD trip. Ed and I did mescaline in the park one evening, but I think we got ripped off on the buy, because I never felt any effects.

Once, on a weekend trip home to New York with another solider, we got pinched for hitchhiking on the I-295 Baltimore-Washington Parkway. At the State Police barracks we were interrogated and asked to produce our military passes. Of course, we didn’t have any to justify being so far from our base. But a phone call back to our barracks raised a duty sergeant who was a friendly to both of us.  He covered our tracks and we were released with a small fine and an admonishment to refrain from further roadside thumbing.  Once back on the road, my companion told me what a close a call we actually had.  His suitcase was filled with drugs of all sorts which he was transporting north to sell to his homies. Had we been booked for being AWOL, which we officially were, we would have been searched and I might still be behind bars today.

SENSATIONAL TABLOID MYSTERY: Drug-crazed ritual killing or family homicide?

The drug culture in and around Ft. Bragg came to prominent national attention in a most tragic way while I was there.  In February of 1970, the pregnant wife and two young children of a Green Beret medical officer, Captain Jeffrey MacDonald, were brutally slain in what appeared to be a Manson Family-style, drug-influenced mass murder. Captain MacDonald was seriously, but not fatally wounded in the attack. “Pig” was crudely scrawled in blood across the couple’s bedroom headboard. According to Capt. MacDonald, the crime was committed by 4 persons, including a woman in a floppy yellow hat carrying a candle and repeatedly chanting ”Acid is groovy, kill the pigs.” The MacDonald murders cast an especially chilly tingle up my spine. The drug scene was real and pervasive. Hippie teens in floppy hats were commonplace in that park where we went to get high. MacDonald’s story was a plausible scenario. Or, I thought at the time, if I was going to commit a mass murder, a drug crazed gang might have been an alibi I would fabricate. The nation speculated and wallowed in the McDonald murders as a sensational tabloid mystery. At Ft. Bragg, it was a too-close-for-comfort, fear-producing slice of real-life terror.

SKETCHY STORY: Did the girl kn the floppy hat exist, or not?

For decades, The MacDonald case spawned countless newspaper and magazine articles, at least two books, a TV mini-series and nearly endless talk show debates. The purported floppy hat wearer was identified, questioned, but never charged. In fact, the only person ever charged was Capt. MacDonald. The Army’s Criminal Investigation Division did not believe his tale of innocence from day one. Nine years after the fact, MacDonald was convicted on three murder counts.  After many trials, appeals and retrials, a federal judge in South Carolina did’t find any reason to overturn MacDonald’s guilty verdict in 2014. Fifty years later, he remains today in a federal penitentiary in Cumberland, MD, serving a life sentence, still proclaiming his innocence.  

My personal remedy for the madness that surrounded me was to get out of Ft. Bragg as much as possible. I had no car, and though we had weekends off, plane or bus or hitchhiking travel to New York was expensive and impractical for a 60-hour weekend turn around. That changed when I fell into the sphere of Sergeant Peter Pruitt from the Bronx, our company supply sergeant. Pruitt wore the patch of 25th Infantry Division. Rumor had it that he re-upped–extended his enlistment in the Army–to get out of the bush in Vietnam.  Guys from the Bronx were tough. But they weren’t stupid.  An inconspicuous turn as supply sergeant on a benign stateside base, beat the shit out of the mud, the leeches and the sweaty jungle of the Mekong Delta, not to mention the deadly intentions of the locals in them there parts.

Pruitt was an E-5, a buck sergeant, the lowest non-commissioned officer rank.  But as quartermaster–the man who could get anyone, anything, virtually any time they wanted it–he had considerable juice up and down the chain of command.  He knew how to keep a very low profile, and was an exemplary role model for the second basic rule of Army life (the first being hurry up and wait): “ghosting”—the ability to be somewhere else when the shit-like work details, or guard duty, or field patrols were being assigned.  

What Sgt. Pruitt was best at however, was “skying up” each weekend.  The term is a misnomer, because there was no flying involved. Rather, Sergeant Pruitt was expert at lining up four-wheeled civilian automotive transportation from Ft. Bragg to New York City nearly each and every Friday. Immediately following the afternoon roll call, three men would pile into a sedan pointed north to the Big Apple. There would be stops along the way only for piss breaks, fuel ups and Sgt. Pruitt’s favorite snack: fried clam strips from the Howard Johnson’s in Rocky Mount, NC.

As a fellow New Yorker who could drive, I was a beneficiary of Sgt. Pruitt’s weekly sky-ups.  As low-ranking man of the group, and not the supplier of the automobile, I had the the third, last and worst driving shift going and coming. The trip typically took 10 hours, give or take.  Leaving around 2pm, meant we hit the Verrazzano Bridge into Brooklyn somewhere around 12 midnight. Sergeant Pruitt would drive the first 3 hours or so, and then move to the back seat and for his nap the rest of the way.  He’d arrive home in the Bronx ready to party until dawn.  Rarely was I was lucky enough to get any sleep prior to my graveyard driving shift. Thus I’d arrive home groggy and cranky, putting a sour note on my late night rendezvous with Natalie, the single incentive that kept me from losing it all week at Ft. Bragg.  

Natalie and I would spend all day Saturday and Saturday night together, often with friends. The next day, we attended weekly mass and participated in the Italian-American ritual of a family midday Sunday dinner.  Natalie’s family usually dined out on Sundays. So it wasn’t unusual for us to have two meals—one at 2pm at my home with my parents, and another at 5pm at Casa Bella restaurant in the neighborhood with Natalie’s folks.  I quickly regained all the weight I had lost in basic training.

TWO LANE BLACKTOP: The road leading to Ft. Bragg was dark, twisty and lonely.

Sundays at 7pm, Natalie would drive me in her father’s Buick right back to where she had picked me up less than 48 hours prior: the 92nd Street entrance ramp to the Verrazzano Bridge in Bay Ridge.  At the prearranged time—Sgt. Pruitt was never ever late and heaven forbid if I was, because he wasn’t going to wait around—I kissed and hugged Natalie goodbye, then I’d be back on the road, southbound into the night. Sgt. Pruitt would again drive the first shift, and I the last.  In those days, Interstate I-95 did not connect all the way south.  Near Petersburg, VA, I would take the wheel and navigate a dark and twisty two lane blacktop, Route 301, for three or more of the final pre-dawn hours.  I dared not pump up the radio to keep myself awake for fear of disturbing Sgt. Pruitt.  We’d arrive just in time for Monday morning revelry. Sgt. Pruitt would be nearly fresh as a daisy.  I’d be a total wreck for the entire day. The only saving grace was I didn’t run off the road and kill the lot of us.

But getting home to see Natalie meant everything.  It was worth the sleepless hours on the road to spend those fleeting fervent hours together, becoming more and more devoted singularly to each other. Skying up from North Carolina nearly every weekend to be with Natalie is what kept me sane that turbulent year of permanent party at Ft. Bragg.  Keeping my wits about me became a much tougher task once I left there for Vietnam. 

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