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By Raymond Greiner
I gaze from my bedroom window on this glorious spring morning as dew glistens on the green pasture. Crows glean the field, with a loquacious sentinel perched nearby keeping watch.
I’m William Townsend, and I just turned twenty. I’m the youngest of an Amish farm family. We live in Lancaster county Pennsylvania. On my dresser is a draft notice to report for army active duty. The United States is at war in Vietnam. Amish practice pacifism, and believe war contradicts Christian philosophy.
We plow forty acres using mules, and our two mules have centered my life since age twelve. I’m the designated plowman and care for these mules. I’m attached to these two as if they were human. My parents and siblings share various farm tasks, as we work as a unit relying on gifts from the soil for subsistence. We have layer hens, a Jersey cow, and ten beehives. My brother and sister are master gardeners taught by our parents. We preserve vegetables for winter’s food source. This is a fourth generation farm extracting all life’s needs from the Earth.
Amish have no church buildings, and hold Sunday services at selected homes. The church owns only chairs, a lectern, and hymnals, which are moved each month from farm to farm. Those attending sit throughout the chosen house in praise of Christ’s teachings, and during fair weather service is held outdoors. Amish males are ministers and assigned to lead Sunday services.
As I entered the army draftee-processing center I’m greeted by a well-groomed master sergeant with a chest full of combat ribbons. I sat across from him at his desk, and he handed me a form with a list of requirements for induction. I was in Amish attire causing his reaction. “What’re you, a Quaker?”
I responded, “No, I’m Amish.”
The sergeant paused, then said, “I understand you folks don’t like war very much. Why didn’t you flee to Canada like many pacifists have?”
I said, “It was an option presented, but as I thought it through decided this war, like all wars, will be horror of the greatest magnitude and many will die or be wounded. According to the teachings of Jesus we’re expected to show mercy and love regardless of repetitive human social errors attached to civil dysfunction. Amish view war as senseless, without moral purpose, and only yields misery to those involved, as is displayed historically. I refuse to carry arms, but felt I could participate in some manner helping the victims of this war.”
The sergeant’s name was McDowell, and he was silent for a moment, and then said, “You’ll be considered a coward. War is firmly established in modern culture. I’ve been in two wars, WWII and Korea and you’re certainly correct about war’s horror. The general public has no concept of the gut wrenching fear and misery of combat. I’ll list you as a conscientious objector. You’ll be required to go through basic training, but will be excused from weapon instruction. You’ll be trained as a combat medic, and assigned to an infantry unit after basic training is completed. I respect your opinion of war, but this respect won’t be shared by many.”
I performed well during basic training. Other than a few eyeball rolls from drill instructors I experienced no negative confrontations because of my status as a conscientious objector. The recruits were far too absorbed in surviving boot camp.
After basic training I was sent to a medic training facility and attended three months of intensive medical treatment instruction. I was then assigned to a combat company and we will be deployed to Vietnam.
The company had served one tour in Vietnam and was battle hardened. Several senior officers and sergeants were Korean War veterans.
The company commander was Captain Kennard, who had been awarded a Silver Star, Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts for combat bravery.
I was instructed to report to Lieutenant Cox the leader of the second platoon, who had served in the company’s first tour in Vietnam.
Captain Kennard summoned me to his office, and I met with him and Lieutenant Cox.
Kennard spoke, “Be seated Townsend. I’ve never commanded a conscientious objector. Your record shows outstanding physical performance in boot camp. I’m guessing your farm work toughened you more than city kids. I’m impressed, but also concerned about you not carrying a weapon.”
I responded, “I knew when I decided to enter the army I’d encounter difficulty remaining faithful to my religious beliefs. I was given opportunity to flee to Canada to avoid being drafted, but felt I’d be of greater worth as a combat medic. I’m willing to do my best at any task assigned, although I refuse to kill another human being. The teachings of Jesus forbid me to kill.”
Lieutenant Cox said, “Townsend, you won’t believe how horrible combat is. The enemy can pounce on you unsuspecting, and it becomes a necessity to defend your own life, and if our platoon is in a particular situation we can’t be burdened to protect an unarmed platoon member. This is very likely to occur if you are unprepared to protect yourself. I suggest you allow me to train you to use a .45 caliber side arm. We won’t expect you to participate in attacks, because you’ll be busy tending wounded soldiers. Your weapon will be used for self-preservation, relieving the platoons need to watch over you.”
I said, “It’d bother me greatly to be considered a burden to other platoon members. I’ll take your advice, but I’ll only shoot an enemy soldier if my life is being directly threatened.”
The platoon was a mix of combat veterans and newly drafted soldiers. The platoon medic is a prestigious position as the troops are aware medics save lives, and shares the dangers and misery of combat.
One of the combat vets, James Willoughby, a corporal, who bunked next to me displayed a particular arrogance related to my conscientious objector status. He distanced himself from me, and conversed in abrupt short crass statements.
Willoughby said, “So, Townsend, you don’t want to kill the enemy. War is pure hell, and your peace loving isn’t worth a shit related to what you’ll soon be facing. The VC’s only mission is to kill as many of us as they can. Killing each other has been around for a very long time. Are you a coward?”
I answered, “No, I’m not a coward, but believe in the teachings of Jesus, and he taught kindness, compassion and love not hate and killing. I’ll not directly engage in killing anyone. The Lieutenant has convinced me to carry a sidearm for self-preservation only, as to not burden fellow soldiers with responsibility to protect me. His concern has merit, and I’ll carry a sidearm.”
Willoughby answered, “Well, you can keep your Jesus distanced from me, I don’t believe in this bullshit. Religions are about money, control and laced with hypocrisy attached to huge churches, with millionaire pastors collecting fees to say prayers living lifestyles of excess. What would your Jesus say about this? Pacifists are ignoring the reality of war, hiding behind religion, and most are cowards running to Canada to avoid the draft.”
I answered, “James, I was offered this option, but refused to flee to Canada. I’m here with you, and I’ll assist as much as I’m able.”
The company departed for Vietnam, arriving in mid afternoon and we were shuttled by bus to the staging area with tents erected to accommodate troops.
Most of my assigned platoon were combat veterans and knew what we will soon be confronted with.
In a few days Lieutenant Cox gathered our platoon explaining orders from higher command. We will be airlifted north to the zone where the VC troops were pressing south.
Six troop carrier choppers landed our platoon in a jungle clearing near the front line of defense established to halt southerly movement of the VC troops. It had been raining heavily and clouds cleared just enough to make the landing. Our company joined with two companies already in defensive positions in a line of foxholes. Foxholes were muddy from the rains as troops hunkered down to avoid sporadic VC rifle fire from just inside the jungle’s fringe.
My platoon dug foxholes adjoining the in place line of defense. The misery of war struck its tone loudly as we shoveled mud like human moles. The VC position and numbers were difficult to calculate, and they may make an assault on our position soon. My foxhole was adjacent to Lieutenant Cox’s and he scanned the trees seeking VC movement on the jungle’s fringe. I carried my medical kit, and also my .45 sidearm.
Captain Kennard met with Lieutenant Cox and ordered a three man reconnaissance team to be deployed after dark in an attempt to gain clearer knowledge of VC strength.
The rain returned adding to the misery. The VC will likely not attack during rain, but it’s a given an assault will come soon.
The recon team returned and met with officers and disclosed two Viet Cong companies were spread in a line just inside the jungle’s fringe. Cloud cover disallowed calling an air strike, and also no reinforcements or evacuations of wounded would be possible because of the heavy cloud cover.
The assault began. We were hit with mortar fire lasting about twenty minutes. Then a hoard of Viet Cong troops attacked. Our two companies returned fire with a vengeance using machine gun and rifle fire. VC casualties were heavy and they retreated to jungle cover. None of our troops were wounded.
The captain radioed headquarters requesting troop reinforcements and ammo resupply. The clouds dissipated, and soon we heard chopper blades and two large troop carrier helicopters brought an additional company, plus fresh ammo, landing in a nearby open area. Company commanders met and decided to counter attack the VC line. Battalion ordered an air strike on the VC position. First came Apache helicopter gunships with extreme firepower Gatling guns to strafe the VC’s position. It was an impressive display of weaponry application, and devastating. Then came low flying prop driven fighter planes with heavy napalm bombardment. I felt as if I was viewing what hell must look like.
It was a three-company assault, and the stench of smoldering napalm magnified the wretchedness. We advanced, and the remaining VC moved deeper into the jungle cover returning fire in retreat.
I moved forward with my assigned platoon alongside Lieutenant Cox. I became separated from the Lieutenant stopping to tend wounded soldiers.
As I waded forward in the hellish jungle war torn scene I heard an explosion just ahead. I moved in the direction of the explosion, and Willoughby had stepped on a land mine and his leg was blown off at the knee, as he lay writhing in extreme pain. I immediately wrapped his knee stub with a large compress bandage to stop the bleeding, and administered morphine. He remained conscious, and I carried him back to the evacuation area. Willoughby and five other wounded soldiers were flown to headquarters for further treatment.
I returned to the battle scene and began tending the many wounded. A VC bullet struck the Lieutenant, hit in his upper thigh. The bullet passed through the leg. I closed the wound with stitches and gave him a shot of morphine. Two stretcher-bearers moved him to the evacuation area. The VC retreated further into the jungle, and the captain ordered us back to the evacuation zone and we were flown to headquarters.
While in flight thoughts spiraled in tangled confusion and anxiety, as my mind and body felt disconnected wallowing in a peculiar void. The entire war event seemed mythical, as if I had suddenly awakened from an agonizing nightmare and questions emerged. Who’s most responsible for such a war? Young Vietnamese and American soldiers were motivated to kill each other. Who’s responsible for this? Old men in smoke filled rooms conjure up wars; they are possessed with anger and hate tactfully dispatching young men to their deaths. Soldiers become pawns in a chess match of repugnance, as government leaders wallow in their fallacious egos. Many of my fellow soldiers will return in flag draped caskets and the American public will honor them as heroes feeding the socially infused constant war has become.
My mind flashed to my team of mules and the glistening dew on the beautiful green pasture. I longed to be home surrounded by the beauty of God’s gifts as an Amish farmer attached to natural Earth and its splendor.
As soon as I arrived at the marshalling area I went immediately to the hospital tent to find Willoughby, he was sedated but cognizant. I asked, “James, how are you feeling?”
He responded, “Not so good. I keep trying to convince myself losing my leg is better than being dead. You saved my life; I can’t believe you carried me back to the evacuation area. Amish life must have made you strong. I’m forever grateful.”
I said, “You’ll soon be sent back to the states for further treatment and recovery. I wrote down my address in Pennsylvania. Send me a letter when you’re settled. Rumor is spreading the government is planning to withdraw from this ridiculous war, and many Americans are protesting this war’s purpose. We may go home soon.”
Willoughby’s eyes became moist with tears, and I put my hand on his arm and said, “I’ll see you again in a much better place.”
My dad picked me up at the Hillsdale Greyhound station with our buggy pulled by Miss Lindy a retired harness racing horse. She’s a beauty, and my dad is attached to this girl. My Vietnam experience is now a memory. The joy of seeing my dad and Miss Lindy overwhelmed me.
A month later I received a letter from Willoughby. “Dear Bill, it’s been a wild ride here at the rehab center. My therapists remind me of boot camp. They’re like drill sergeants. I have a prosthetic leg attached to what remains of my upper thigh. I’m walking quite well now, and looking forward to escaping this place. I’ll be released next week. Don’t know where I’ll go from here. My parents died in a car accident before I was drafted. I’d like to visit your farm. Write me when you can, James.”
My parents Martha and Harold are the most compassionate people I have ever known, and they expressed sincere desire to help James in any manner possible. They told me he could visit as long as he wants. I wrote James. “James, you’re most welcome here. We don’t drive or own a car. Our farm has no phone or electricity. I suggest you check the Greyhound bus schedule to our nearby town of Hillsdale, and then write me with time and date of your arrival. I’ll drive Miss Lindy to pick you up with our carriage and return to our farm. You’ll enjoy this place, it’s as far from the experience we shared in Vietnam as one could ever get. Come as soon as you’re able, William.”
I picked up James, greeting him as he exited the bus. He smiled and hugged me. It was a memorable greeting, as two war vets whose memories are forever haunted with grim visions of humankind’s deepest pit of dismay. Miss Lindy took us home.
It was an odd but wonderful day for both of us, and my Mom served the most delicious meal shared by my siblings, Annie, Robert, and my parents. James told Mom it was the finest meal of his life, and we all talked late into the night. I explained to James Amish males are required to give sermons at selected homes where Sunday services are held. We have an elderly neighbor woman whose husband died last summer and one of her grandest joys was when her house was chosen for Sunday service. The church brethren asked me to give the sermon at her home to allow her the joyous events of her past when her husband was alive. I agreed, and we all attended. James and I took the work wagon pulled by my two beautiful mules, Isabelle and Smiley. James got a kick out of riding on the mule wagon, and other family members rode in the carriage with Miss Lindy providing horsepower.
As we arrived the crowd was gathering and the brethren had the chairs and lectern in place. A small sign hung on the front door. “Welcome to a house of the Lord. William Townsend will deliver the sermon titled, War, I object.”