23. NKP, Buddha and AFR36-12

NKP, Buddha and AFR36-12

Nakon Phanom Air Base, Thailand, Winter 1971

Being sent to Thailand, I felt much like Brer’ Rabbit being thrown into the briar patch. Nakon Phanom Air Base was a small, quiet base with no jets – A7’s, FAC 141’s, a few big choppers and us was about it, as I recall – no rocket attacks, nice quarters with a bar and rec hall shared between two hootches, and full access to the local downtown area, which abounded in bars, theaters, restaurants, and indigenous cultural activities, including regular flights to Bangkok. For most of the guys at Da Nang, a TDY to NKP was like a vacation. But it’s where they sent everyone they were worried about. Ah, the wisdom of the Air Force!

It wasn’t like we didn’t do the same exact mission as the Da Nang group – except all our missions were fragged to Laos, since we were closer. Otherwise, it was the same mission. Of course, everyone knew that if you went down in Laos, that was it, they didn’t take prisoners. Too far from Hanoi. Nobody much wanted to be a prisoner anyway, after all the stories we’d heard and the lovely experience at Fairchild. But we never expected to go down. We were flying probably the most reliable aircraft ever built, we had incredible ground crewmen, and we were always damn careful. So we never lost a plane.

The closest thing I ever had to a real emergency – apart from the time we lost electrical power, which wasn’t a big deal on the C-47 – was when my co-pilot, a captain, shut down a perfectly good engine on takeoff. I was flying in the left seat for instructional purposes – ‘first pilot’ they call it – and the captain was flying as my co-pilot even though he was Aircraft Commander due to his rank.

Now, one thing they teach you in pilot training is never shut down an engine on takeoff. Well, actually, no one had to teach you that. You just figured it out on your own. Since takeoff is the most critical time in a flight, you want everything to go perfectly. No coyotes crossing the runway, no flameouts, no one shutting down the engine. But it was his fini-flight and he was a little nervous.

It was an early morning takeoff, clear weather, but a typical humid morning in Thailand. We were well off the ground and just had the gear up when an RO – later we find out it was his first mission – keys the intercom and says, “The left engine is on fire!” I look back to check, and as I turn back around saying, “It’s okay, it’s just condensation blowing out of the cowl flaps,” I see the good captain punch the feather button and slam back the throttle on the left engine, shutting it down. I look at him and say again, “The engine is fine, it’s just condensation.”

“I’m not taking any chances on this flight, Lieutenant. I’ve got the airplane, we’re going back in.” He shook the yoke, signaling control of the airplane, and took over, keying the radio button and calling the tower to tell them we were single engine and circling the field to come back in.

Luckily, the C-47 flies as well on one engine as it does on two. They say the second engine is just there for insurance. But I never heard of an engine catching on fire, or even failing. They just work. That’s how they’re made. And, as advertised, we drove right around the field on the right engine and came back in for an uneventful landing. There was no evidence of fire in the engine, and the ground crew chief said, “It was probably just condensation.” Yeah.

We had to hang around on the tarmac for an hour or so before the group could get organized to come out and soak down the captain in our traditional fini-flight ceremony. It was hard to get excited about it. I hadn’t been thrilled with the whole exercise.

But it was just one more strange day in a very strange year.

In fact, we had a real good time most of the time! It was a far cry from slogging through the mud, far even from the dreary days at Da Nang. The Thai people are some of the most beautiful, friendly, kind and gentle people I’ve ever known. I took several day trips out into the surrounding countryside, once even going by taxi miles out into the boonies to some guy’s girlfriend’s family home, where we were treated like royalty and served traditional Thai farmer food, which is not much like what you find in Thai restaurants. It is, however, very hot. Flavored with a certain tiny green pepper which I have seen nowhere else.

Another time, I traveled by bus to the next sizable town, Ubon. On the bus, I was proud to be able to understand the conductor when he asked, “Bai nai?” and answered in my best Thai, “Bai Ubon!” I might as well have drawled, ‘Goin’ ta Texas, buddy!’ The conductor knitted his brow in obvious confusion and looked around the bus for help. We exchanged question and answer a few more times, me playing with the rising/falling tones in a vain attempt to communicate what seemed an obvious answer: was there anywhere else I could even be going? Finally, someone one the bus more familiar with GI Thai said, “Bai Ubon,” and he got it.

“Ah! Ubon!” He nodded, and bobbing and smiling widely, took my money, gave me a ticket and change, and proceeded on down the aisle. I gave up on learning Thai after that.

Several of us formed friendships among the Thai who worked on the base, and I spent long hours talking with the Thai woman and man who worked in our hootch bar. Toy, a beautiful, well-educated girl whose father had been some kind of government official, was engaged to an American who had been at the base earlier and was back in the States writing to her and planning – or so he said – to bring her to the US. She frequently asked us to help her translate, or at least understand, his letters. She spoke English well, but was not as adept at reading it, especially in its casual forms.

Ba, an older Thai man who shared the job with her – of course, we had the bar open most of the day every day – helped me to understand the delicacies of Thai culture and introduced me to the Buddhist approach to life with his stories and his calm gentle spirit. His version of the Middle Way, “Buddha say, not too much, not too little, just enough,” and the smile that accompanied his homily, bloomed in my mind and heart with such beauty and strength that I knew immediately that this was my own true creed.


Wat Si Thep

Indeed, the discovery of Buddhism and its development in my life is the aspect of my whole Southeast Asian experience that redeems it and has helped me to see it as a necessary part of the path of my own personal development. I began noticing the saffron-robed monks and novices who were everywhere in the little town, and I stood outside the gates of an old temple in the area, Wat Si Thep, and gawked at the monks gathered ‘round the large and ancient well, marveling at the feelings of peace and connection that filled me.

The Buddha’s teachings eventually helped me through many difficult times in my life. As I began to embrace a Buddhist perspective and a Buddhist practice, I was eventually able to come to terms with my whole war experience.

At the time, it just seemed very beautiful and attractive, and I read all I could find in the base library about Buddhism. But I still felt really crazy, angry and stressed most of the time.

At some point during the year, I got an R&R, which I chose to take in Honolulu so my parents and my girlfriend (SB) could meet me there. It was supposed to be a wonderful break from the pressures of war. It ended up being some kind of bizarre visit to a world of unreality, most of which I can’t remember at all. We were there a week, and the most I can string together is about 10 minutes worth of memories. Flying over the delta rice fields in a C-47 troop carrier, riding in the hotel elevator, driving across the island to visit the Polynesian Cultural Center, a large pinkish mass of poi, the Pearl Harbor Memorial, staring out the hotel window at thousands of other hotel windows, a few hula dancers and some Don Ho type singer in a bar: those are the things I remember. I found it hard to be present to my parents, even to my girlfriend. None of it seemed to fit with the reality that had become my daily life.

Returning to NKP, I grew increasingly sick about that reality, and about my participation in the war, which increasingly seemed a moral calamity.

And then along came Gen. Ryan’s folly, “Voluntary Resignation Under AFR 36-12.” The copy I have is dated 14 Aug 1971, and says it’s aimed at officers who “are a detriment to morale and mission accomplishment.”  It continues: “2. When an officer recognizes that his attitude, behavior, military bearing, lack of leadership qualities, or performance is such that it will result in deterioration of morale and mission effectiveness, he may request voluntary resignation in accordance with paragraph 16m, AFR 36-12.”

I felt sure that this was me, especially in consideration of the tense: “will result.” It doesn’t say I have to have done anything bad, just that I might.

The document further says the officer must be “convinced that his performance or attitude will result in deterioration in mission effectiveness, and that his unalterable convictions preclude rehabilitation.” That was definitely me!

It seems clear that it was primarily a propaganda effort. Although it doesn’t specifically mention opposition to the war, this provision was AF Chief Ryan’s answer to resistance and protest within the air corps, as the reference to “unalterable convictions” reveals.

I seized on this opportunity immediately. As soon as I heard about it, sometime in early September, less than two months before my year was up,  I went to the base judge advocate’s office and told them I wanted to apply for discharge under 36-12. They took me seriously, and we began the process. I worked for days, honing my personal statement of opposition to the war, filling out the forms and collecting the necessary paperwork. I typed up my statement on 6 Sept 1971, and the official version was prepared on 26 Sept 1971. They sent it in and we began to wait.

October 31 came and still no word from the Air Force. Though I was due to leave, they told me that I couldn’t change station while the administrative action was pending. No one had mentioned that when I filed. But I waited, doing my job, flying every day despite the pending action.

I was never able to see my way clear to refusal at that point. It seemed like turning my back on people I had come to know and love, which was to me a greater moral lapse than being there in the war. I knew that every mission I didn’t fly, someone else would have to, and their lives, their blood would be on my hands if things went wrong. So I kept flying. Ironically, that’s what kept me in. All along, despite my wretched state over the moral inconsistency of being part of the war, I kept doing my job, did my best to impress them, looked sharp, studied hard to do well on check rides, just kept living out my conditioned drive to succeed and please others.

Finally, the action was returned: my request for discharge was denied based on the fact that my record showed no evidence of problems – my OER’s (Officer Effectiveness Reports) were too good.  Col. Smith specifically references this in his “recommend disapproval” letter, noting that my most recent ER rated me as a “very fine officer (upper category)” and recommended promotion. However, everyone in the Air Force knew that a major problem with that system was “inflated ER’s” – everyone sounded great, “outstanding,” to read their ER’s – if you wanted to recognize really outstanding performance, you had to resort to hyperbole of the grossest sort, sheer fantasy. So the rationale for denying my request was pure sham. He couldn’t say I was a detriment right after he had signed off as the “indorsing” (the Air Force spelling!) officer on my September OER saying I was a “fine officer.” And the whole process kept me in-country for ten extra days. Thanks a lot, Gen. Ryan.

The final irony: I had assumed that the long wait for the action was because it had to go through lots of people to get all the way to Gen. Ryan’s office and back, but in fact, it never made it past Col. Ransom, my Wing Commander. Apparently, he simply took Col. Smith’s recommendation. My request was returned without action.

I found out years later that no officers were ultimately discharged under this 36-12 action.

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