'Doing nothing is better than being busy doing nothing.' ― Lao Tzu
There had never been a stranger outfit in the United States Army Europe in the early 1970s than the 1st Battalion, 13th Infantry in Baumholder.
Traditionally, most standing armies would place their best soldiers in a so called élite formation such as the Guards, SAS, Parachute Regiment and Commandos of the British Commonwealth, or Rangers, Airborne Paratroopers, or Special Forces in the United States. Unknown to the general public was that the army would secretly place their worst or misfit soldiers into their own units. Though it was common enough for any infantry battalion to have its 'awkward squad' or 'goon platoon', USAREUR had an entire battalion placed in the 8th Infantry Division whose eccentric and eclectic members bided their time until normal or expedited release from the battalion or the entire United States Army.
No one knew or remembered how or when the First or 'the worst' of the 13th became a de facto penal battalion. It was the human equivalent of the transient barracks where industrious soldiers would remove the unserviceable broken bunks and wall lockers from their own barracks and place them in the buildings that would house soldiers temporarily passing through the army base and taking the 'serviceable' furniture back from the transient quarters to their own barracks in the process the US Army nicknamed 'midnight supply'.
Perhaps as a warning to the rest of USAEUR to keep away from them, the pariah battalion was made highly visible. The 1/13th became the unit to test the feasibility of wearing the vast amounts of unissued Vietnam leftover light weight camouflage leaf pattern 'jungle fatigues' as opposed to the highly starched faded grey green fatigues of the rest of the army.
The officers of the 1/13th facing the 'Reduction in Force' from the high numbers of troops required for Vietnam were attempting to display their suitability for remaining as career officers by volunteering the battalion as frequently as they could to undesirable duties such as field exercises in the armpits of Germany. The 1/13th found itself habitually attending the live fire bases of Hohenfels, Grafenwohr and other places where they lived in tents that would draw a shudder from the rest of USAEUR.
Every new battalion commander sent to the 'make or break' command of the 1/13th Infantry began by vowing to 'bring this battalion back into the United States Army', but ended by their prematurely retiring.
Many of the 1/13th Infantrymen were facing or had returned from a sentence in a 'stockade' or military prison, such as the memorable sergeant who reported to the battalion in his dress green uniform with the shadow of two missing 'rockers' beneath his three chevrons that now denoted he had been demoted twice to the rank of buck sergeant and his visibly bobbing up and down from the 'alcafluence of incohol'.
There were contrasting others. These were the once excellent, or 'STRAC' as the US Army called them, soldiers who had been posted to the unit who were later imprisoned. One of these was the second in charge of the battalion who was arrested as a possibly unwitting accessory to espionage and there was the highly decorated Ranger platoon sergeant who couldn't be bothered with following the time consuming regulations of returning a five ton truckload of unused live ammunition, therefore he used his initiative to have it dumped it in a lake.
The Non Commissioned Officer
One of these soldiers of the rise and fall school was Robert C. Kielpinski. Born and raised in a smokestack industrial city, Bob neither wanted to work in one of the factories that eventually killed their lifetime workers, nor had his parents the money to send him to university. He enlisted in the US Army after being expelled from high school for, depending on the way you looked at it, either being a scheming anti-authority troublemaker or an independent thinking non conformist.
His rise began when he took to the Regular Army like a duck to water, earning a high school General Equivalency Diploma and parachute wings at Fort Benning. Assigned to the Stateside 82nd Airborne Division, 'America's All American Guard of Honour', once he turned 18 years old he volunteered for Vietnam. His prowess in the bush balanced by the desires of most of his cohort to not be the last American soldier killed in Vietnam led him from a regular infantry company in the Americal Division to graduating from the rigorous Recondo school and service in the Americal's Ranger Company, the newer name of the formidable Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol unit. He was awarded the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry as the unit's quota of Bronze Stars had been exceeded. However, he noticed when he had a problem with his pay that took him to Saigon in an area so far removed from the battle lines, every one of the pay clerks wore a Bronze Star ribbon on their khaki uniforms.
He rose to the rank of buck sergeant with his company commander expressing his pride in him, saying that the sky was the limit for his career as a non commissioned officer. He was disappointed he couldn't volunteer for another tour of duty in Vietnam that would guarantee a promotion to staff sergeant due to the war winding down. The GIs were supposedly being replaced by the Army of the Republic of Vietnam with the American soldiers coming home in the process deemed 'Vietnamisation'.
Raised on the Sergeant Bilko television show, Bob thought he'd make a career of the Regular Army. He intended to follow the advice of the senior NCOs he knew by retiring in the Philippines that had the best of both worlds for his own personal use; American military installations for hospitals and the like and a cheap English speaking Asian nation with plenty of attractive women.
Peacetime began his fall. The parachute unit that he was assigned to, a part of the 8th Infantry Division, was reduced in size to a single battalion that was sent to Italy. The unlucky remainder Airborne troopers were scattered amongst the regular 'straight leg' infantry battalions of the Division who didn't have the same pride in their appearance or sense of Esprit d' Corps.
Things really went downhill when he had an altercation with a 'Shake and Bake Sergeant'. Following the Vietnam War the US Volunteer Army was attempting to get rid of those who didn't mind the excitement of war but weren't overly fond of the nonsense of a peacetime army. The Army began replacing them with ambitious young individuals who enlisted with a guarantee that they would attend a series of training courses going from Recruit to Sergeant in 28 weeks. Their nickname came from a frequently advertised quick and easy neat way to imitate the taste of fried chicken in a quarter of the time with none of the mess. When the teenage megalomaniac non commissioned officer embarrassed not only himself, but his entire unit and repeatedly lied to shift the blame elsewhere, Bob took the Shake and Bake Sergeant behind the barracks for some fatherly advice. When the teenager continued his whining and other defective personality traits that Bob felt had no place in the United States Army, Bob applied the same informal disciplinary counselling that the Army had used from Valley Forge to Vietnam, the same process his own Basic Combat Training Drill Sergeant did to him behind some other barracks.
Unlike most soldiers, the whiner ran to their company commander with the eventual court martial calling it a violation of Article 128 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, or 'physical assault' to the layman.
It was Bob's misfortune that the presiding officer of the court martial had no infantry combat experience, as when he asked Bob if during his time in Vietnam he had ever seen anyone struck by their senior NCO, Bob truthfully replied,
'Only if they were lucky, sir.'
Bob was demoted one rank and sent to the 1/13th Infantry, specifically Charlie Company which was where the rest of the battalion dumped their misfits. The very existence of the battalion was a surprise to Bob who thought that type of unit only existed in Hollywood films he once enjoyed like Between Heaven and Hell and Advance to the Rear.
At that time the United States Army had a rank between pay grade E3 Private First Class and E5 (Buck) Sergeant that was an E4 Specialist Fourth Class with an insignia of an eagle or 'chicken' to those who were promoted to it. Those demoted to E4 wore the once traditional two chevrons of Corporal displaying to the entire US Army how that soldier had 'earned' their rank; a 'hard four' as the Army called it. The Shake and Bake Sergeant was transferred to a billet that had no command function.
Once in the Battalion, Bob was assured that by displaying excellent leadership ability with the recalcitrant privates, such as the drug users who wore their hair parted in the middle like Shemp of the Three Stooges, he soon would regain his sergeant's stripes on 'the next E5 round'.
An effective mixture of Bob's reputation based on the knowledge of his court martial for not suffering fools gladly, his impressive combat decorations, and a mixture of suitable body language and facial expressions made his squad the most efficient in the battalion. His only challenge to his authority led him to introduce his challenger's head to the water of a toilet bowl. The challenger was too ashamed to reveal what happened, but everyone could guess what had occurred and 'Corporal Kay's' authority was respected all the more and never again challenged. His entire platoon admired him, though they were also fascinated and frightned by him as he was the only man they had ever seen who slept with his eyes open.
Sadly, Bob fell afoul of one of the oldest forces in the manmade universe...ego.
When his squad leader and his family went on a month's leave to the 'world' as the soldiers of USAEUR called the United States, Bob was given command of his squad. Bob earned 'Outstanding' ratings. He had excelled in leading a rifle squad in field exercises, an opposite of Vietnam in not only the cold wet gloomy weather, and there being no chance of killing or being killed, but whereas the jungle magnified every sound one made in moving through it, the German forest seemed to absorb every noise.
Bob's careerist Staff Sergeant squad leader returned in a month and seeing the marked improvement in his former command threw a fit of jealousy out of fear that his own army career would suffer. His Squad Leader, who Bob referred to as a 'Nine to Five NCO' was one of those marked for being RIFed. As he had a wife and family, he would annoy both his superiors and inferiors by atoning for his incompetence by sucking up to any and all authority like a Hoover vacuum cleaner. One of the best things Bob loved about the army was that sort of behaviour was not only useless, but was not tolerated in a rifle company. Rather than being satisfied with a strong team leader making his squad look good, his squad leader complained to the platoon sergeant and platoon leader that he was being made to look bad. All of them informed him to his face that he didn't need anyone else to make him look like a bad sergeant.
A deal was struck with his easy going platoon sergeant, the company first sergeant and his company commander, all Vietnam veterans. Bob would still have the chance to regain his stripes, but he would be shifted to the Company's Headquarters platoon where he would be the Company Training NCO. His former Special Forces company commander who emphasised with Bob's form of 'hands on' disciplinary counselling told him that his intelligence and initiative would be of fine use to everyone in the company in that position, and he had already proved his ability to efficiently lead and dramatically improve a rifle squad. The staff billet would further enhance his knowledge and career opportunities. Off the record he claimed that the other Staff Sergeants in his platoon didn't have enough brains to shine at the job.
Bob thought the idea of being the Company Training NCO was rather ironic, as the only time he aroused everyone's ire was by his suggestion that he design, implement, and instruct a Recondo 24/7 training course for Charlie Company to bring in fighting spirit and intense self confidence. The Nine to Five NCOs adamantly refused anything that would take them further away from their nagging wives and obnoxious children. Some time ago he and several other former 509th Airborne alumni were whipped into shape by a Ranger platoon sergeant with the plan that they would shine at going through a French Army Commando course in a nearby French army kaserne. The trained to perfection former paratroopers found that the French couldn't even handle monkey bars or relatively normal physical training, but they earned the right to wear a flashy French Commando badge on their pockets, but only if they were in France...
His new Training NCO billet was almost a sinecure, that to Bob meant that if people found out how easy it really was he'd be assigned another position. 'Wearing two hats' meant that he'd have problems doing both jobs due to a lack of time.
Bob had enough experience and learned from the expertise of other career, or 'lifer' sergeants what to do.
'Do the job as well as you can, but always be heard to complain about the excessive workload.'
As most of the work of the Company Training NCO was done by the Battalion Training NCO, all Bob had to do was ensure that all the equipment and instructor needed for that particular training was on hand and the area of the base where the training would take place was reserved. It explained his frequent absences from his company where he could read The Stars and Stripes army newspaper in an on base snack bar. The army referred to Bob's frequent recreation as 'shamming' and 'getting over like a fat rat in a cheese factory'.
Things were looking up, and Bob thought it was time for his rise. He had a great job, got on splendidly with his superiors, and had a couple highly attractive but hyper neurotic German girlfriends he slept with. At last he passed his promotion board and he received the return of his sergeant stripes. Once that happened his Captain assured him that he would approve his next duty station, training to be a Basic Combat Training Drill Sergeant that would keep him on his army career path.
Every action has a reaction, and that reaction can often be unexpected.
The Sorcerer's Apprentice
'Good morning, sir. Sergeant Kay reporting as ordered.'
Inside his company commander's office with the 5th Special Forces Green Beret hanging over a wicked looking dagger, were framed photographs and artefacts of his two tours in Vietnam, the last as a commander of a Special Forces A Team.
Rising from a chair in front of Charlie Company's Commanding Officer was a bespectacled man around Bob's age wearing expertly starched olive green fatigues with the teardrop shaped black metal rank insignia of Private First Class on his collar. He wore no shoulder patch that indicated that he had come from another outfit and his fatigues were the shade of green indicating he had only worn them in his Basic Combat and Advanced Individual Training.
Captain Thornleigh replied,
'Sergeant Kay, since you have been working so hard at your Training NCO job and you've had such excellent results, I'm assigning you an assistant.'
Bob made sure not to roll his eyes. He obviously had complained about his workload too much.
'PFC Robertshaw, this is your new sergeant, we call him "Sergeant Kay". You're going to be the Assistant Company Training NCO.'
The pair shook hands.
Bob was initially surprised at Robertshaw's age, but the 1/13th usually received its replacements from other battalions in USAEUR rather than teenagers straight from Infantry School in the US. Robertshaw didn't have the look of a prior serviceman or a criminal, that meant he was either one of the eccentrics who didn't fit in anyplace else, or he was an undercover Criminal Investigation Division or Counter Intelligence Officer assigned to get something on Bob as the latter did to the 1/13th former second in charge Major; one of the former had been severely beaten up by persons unknown when his cover was broken.
'Normally I'd have you two get acquainted here in my office, but I've a meeting up at Battalion. I'll meet with the pair of you on Thursday to discuss the next week's training schedule.'
By viewing his body language, Bob felt his beloved Commanding Officer was going to get the news of his being RIFed. Other than his own CO in Vietnam, Captain 'Thorny' was the best CO he ever had. Unfortunately the peacetime all volunteer army was purging the once admired Green Berets from its ranks. Though Thorny led not only a Special Forces A Team but ran his own show leading a company and later a battalion of Vietnamese Montagnard Civilian Irregular Defence Group counter guerrillas with great results, the non Special Forces officers of USAEUR deemed him to have only been a 'glorified squad leader'. Bob often wondered, when dealing with idiots what was the point of trying?
'Forty Rounds, Sir.'
Bob's closing statement was the Regimental motto that was encouraged to be used as the 1/13th Infantry's own salutation. Legend said that during the American Civil War one of the Regiment's members was asked where the missing Corps badge that was supposed to be worn on his kepí was. He replied by slapping his black leather cartridge box and replying that his badge was 'Forty Rounds in my magazine pouch and one in my rifle'. The motto had been adopted as part of the Regiment's crest, however the majority of the NCOs and enlisted men in the battalion presumed the challenged 13th Infantryman removed his insignia to facilitate his hiding from authority and came up with an impressive reply...
'Follow me, Robertshaw.'
Bob led him to his privately owned vehicle, a Ford Capri. To Malcolm Robertshaw's surprise, his Sergeant whipped off his camouflage jungle fatigues to reveal not a white dinner jacket with a red carnation, but a similar starched fatigue uniform. Bob tucked his camouflage bib scarf ascot into the green fatigue shirt.
He drove his new assistant to an empty corner of a post snack bar where they could talk over coffee.
'You've been issued your jungle fatigues yet, Robertshaw?'
'Well, you're going to be wearing both uniforms in this job. As you can see, I wear jump wings over the rank stripes on my hat, so you will not be wearing the battalion crest until I tell you to. We keep a low profile; we blend in and we go with the flow...'
'Ever read the story in the Bible where Jesus is asked whether it's right to pay tax?'
'"Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's", Sergeant.'
'Well done, Robertshaw. That's just what we do here, render onto the Army what is the Army's and to me what is mine. Are you religious?'
'I studied at a Seminary for a year, Sergeant.'
'What did you do after that?'
'I had second thoughts about the Priesthood, then I studied Eastern Philosophy for two years at University, Sergeant.'
'What did you do after that?'
'I travelled around Mexico, and down through Central America, returned Stateside then joined the army, Sergeant.'
'How did you end up here, Robertshaw?'
'I enlisted in the Army to be a meteorologist, but I decided it just wasn't what it was cracked up to be. They put me in the Infantry, sent me to Germany and...'
'How did you end up in this battalion, Robertshaw.'
'I guess I pissed off someone in Frankfurt when I had to write where I wanted to be stationed. I said "Surprise me"...and they did.'
Bob thought Robertshaw's story was too weird to be one of an undercover agent and so weird that they definitely would have sent someone like him here, especially as he was probably older than the clerk jerk Sergeant that he had pissed off. He obviously was one of the many round pegs who didn't fit in the square holes of the Regular Army that were in the 1/13th.
'What did they tell you about the First of the Thirteenth?'
'That it was a world of shit, Sergeant.
'Did you use that phraseology at the seminary?'
'No, Sergeant. One of the reasons I realised that the priesthood wasn't for me as it limited my options in thinking and speaking what was required for the time and situation.'
Bob was beginning to like him.
He agreed that it was indeed a world of shit, and he reflected that he had run the gamut of shit since the start of his involuntary transfer to the 1/13th Infantry. Though the rest of the US Army regarded it as a shithouse outfit, he had come to like the battalion. It didn't have the amount of chickenshit pettiness of his former peacetime airborne infantry unit or the NCO Academy he graduated from, nor did it have the amount of nonsensical bullshit and bombastic horseshit the rest of the army had. He had a great mutual relationship with his former Special Forces CO, with both of them being admired by 'C' Company for being batshit crazy, and not giving a shit, but Charlie Company were shit sure that they both knew their shit and had their shit together. When Bob went apeshit flushing a shithead's head down a shitter, there wasn't the same shitstorm as when he punched out the shitstirring Shake and Bake Sergeant. He had well earned a Piled Higher and Deeper degree in Scatology from the School of Hard Knocks.
'Of course the world is shit, Robertshaw. They may not teach that in university but you'll find that out when you make a living. The difference is that there are those who skate over the top of it, and there are those that sink in the shit and die, or wish they were dead. Now, which are you going to be?'
'Whatever you want me to be, Sergeant.'
'Ever hear the story about the little bird in the shit?'
'No, Sergeant. We didn't get that one in the Seminary'.
'Once upon a time there was a little bird. He goofed up and didn't fly South when he was supposed to, so he ended up flying during a freezing snow storm. It was too much for him, the little bird couldn’t fly anymore and he crashed to the ground and made his way to a barn. Just before he made it inside, a cow came by and shat on him. The little bird thought that was the end so he fell asleep. When he woke up he found he was warm and felt a lot better. The little bird was so happy he started to sing. A cat heard him singing, so he followed the voice until he found the little bird, where he dug him out of the shit and ate him. What's the moral of the story, Robertshaw?'
'I don't know, Sergeant.'
'Number one, not everybody who shits on you is your enemy. Number two, not everybody who gets you out of the shit is your friend. Number three, when you’re in deep shit, keep quiet.'
'With all due respect, the Sergeant should've taught at the Seminary.'
'Respect accepted, and this isn't the Marine Corps, Robertshaw. You don't have to speak to me in the third person, I won't have you running around in circles with your rifle over your head barking as Platoon Sheepdog for using the word ewe.'
'Thank you, Sergeant. My Dad was a Marine in World War II.'
'Do you define yourself as a hard charger?'
'No Sergeant, I always agreed with the song Fools Rush In Where Angels Fear to Tread.'
'Well said, Robertshaw. I saw quite a few fools in 'Nam. Can you type?'
'Seventy Five words a minute, Sergeant, I learned it in school.'
'Me too, Robertshaw. As time goes by I'll teach you the basics of the job, we've just discussed the fundamentals. Did they teach you in Seminary how to go with the flow?'
'In University we learned the art of Wu Wei, Sergeant.'
'Wu Wei, Sergeant. The Taoist principle of accomplishing things by doing nothing.'
Bob saw the light that his own and his Captain's splendid war records hadn't got them where they had expected to go from a new, different regime...
* * *
The pair were a match made in heaven.
The unironed camouflage jungle fatigues and ascot bib scarf excelled in being able to be the outer shell over the dress casual civilian clothes they wore beneath them that would allow him to go off base to the town of Baumholder where they'd enjoy the best coffee they ever had in a Bäckerei café.
Bob learned not only the fine art of not complaining too much, but the pair dreamed up new things for them to do that required little actual effort yet looked highly impressive on the list of not only their, but their entire company's and battalion's list of accomplishments. In the peacetime army an ounce of appearance was worth a pound of performance; the reverse of what it had been during the war.
Prior to Bob's returning to the US to be a Drill Sergeant, Robertshaw graduated from an NCO Academy where he further learned a variety of skills from the classroom as well as from his classmates and mentors speaking off the record. Robertshaw finished his army enlistment, obtained a degree in business management from the GI Bill and had a lucrative career working his way to the top. Bob retired as a Sergeant Major to run a bar and a brothel in the Philippines.
'If you can't dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.' ― W.C. Fields
Author Notes: I am the author of three Extra Dimensional/Ultraterrestial military science fiction novels MERCENARY EXOTIQUE, OPERATION CHUPACABRA and WORK IN OTHER WORLDS FROM YOUR OWN HOME! as well as two travel books THE MAN FROM WAUKEGAN and TWO AUSTRALIANS IN SCOTLAND (all from Lulu.com). I live happily ever after with my wife in paradise (coastal Kiama, NSW Australia).