Peace Corps Writers
Becoming a Man in the Sixties
The Peace Corps and the Army
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by Tony Zurlo (Nigeria 1964–66)
 

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FOR THOSE OF US who emerged from our teens in the 1960s, passage into adulthood was especially tumultuous because of the profound social upheavals that rocked our nation during that decade. We began the decade with trim, prim hair styles and ended it with “hair down to . . . [our] knee”; we entered wearing properly pressed, three-button suits and calf-length skirts with flowered blouses and exited in tie-dyes, ripped jeans, and sandals.
     Sprinting into the adult world and grasping for our niche in life, we were overwhelmed by the moral authority of movements: Civil Rights, Feminism, Free Speech, Anti-War. We reacted with a new permissiveness of free sex and drugs. We experimented.
     We also volunteered. Working with groups to promote peace and education and civil rights became my generation’s informal “initiation” rite into adulthood. Millions of young men and women joined organizations, especially those with links to JFK and LBJ. We became the foot soldiers for the Great Society, carrying our weapons of pens and notebooks and idealism on our backs. When we finished our Peace Corps tour, we volunteered for VISTA, Head Start, or Upward Bound.

Millions of young men served in the U.S. Army. Military service had always been one of the more common “initiation” rites that transformed teenage boys into men. We registered with Uncle Sam, and when our number was called, we went willingly because we trusted the fashionable mantra that “The Army will make you a man.”
     For most young men, serving in the peace-time military had many attractions, including free overseas travel, free housing, and free food. During our tour of duty, we would learn some self-discipline. The military also guaranteed the G.I. Bill, which would pay for a college education when we finished our tour of duty. Not a bad deal, except that at the time, ours was not a peace-time military. By the time Uncle Sam caught up with me, the U.S. had nearly a half million soldiers fighting in Vietnam. The same government that was sending out VISTA volunteers to serve poor Americans and Peace Corps Volunteers to teach the world’s illiterates and heal the sick was also sending the American war machine to Southeast Asia to destroy villages in order to save them.
     We returned from the Peace Corps thinking we had completed our “duty” to our nation. Many draft boards, however, saw us as scheming draft dodgers and pounced on our eligibility for the military. Some RPCVs felt betrayed, as if they were being subjected to a kind of double jeopardy. Others scrambled for draft exemptions through marriage or strategic jobs. In my own case, the pressure in my home state of Texas for young men to serve if called on was intense. In general, the Peace Corps was seen as a pleasant diversion, but the honorable path for someone who wanted to prove that he was a man and a patriot was accepting Uncle Sam’s call to military service.
     I will never know how I would have reacted in combat. I do know that by the time I was being drafted, I strongly supported the policy of “Vietnamization,” turning all the fighting over to the South Vietnamese army. My personal goal was to stay alive by avoiding combat. One way to accomplish this goal was an assignment to Germany or Korea. Then I learned that most of the Army’s tank units were stationed in these two countries, not in Vietnam; so I decided to enlist in Armor Officer Candidate School (OCS).
     After I arrived for OCS at Ft. Knox, Kentucky, the Army closed down the school. For my training, the army transferred me to Infantry OCS at Ft. Benning, Georgia. I entered the barracks expecting to find mostly militant, brain-washed war-mongers, but the 150 or so candidates I trained with turned out to be highly intelligent and honorable young men. We all expected to be leading an infantry platoon in Vietnam soon after being commissioned. What followed was nine months of psychological and physical stress. Every time we maneuvered in full gear, I packed so much equipment that the edge of my back pack left track marks on the trials. But I survived, miraculously, and the Army honored my armor commitment and sent me to Germany as a tank platoon leader soon after the Russians sent tanks into Czechoslovakia.
     I was a whiz at reading maps on maneuvers, but I never did understand much about tanks. They were colossal, ugly, greasy, loud dinosaurs. And when I entered the army, I understood nothing about guns, either. I had never even held a real gun. Real men didn’t need guns, I always argued. Everything about the culture of guns distressed me. So, when American troop strength in Vietnam was at its peak of a half million, I was figuring out how to avoid firing any guns in Germany.

  
  
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