Joe Kantorski recently shared this story of his US Army service in MASH in Frankfurt, Germany as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam war at a Story Barn event at the Historical Society
A Veteran’s Story
Hot and humid early summer’s evening in San Antonio, Texas – U.S. Army base Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas.
I’m walking back to my barracks from the Mess hall.
I salute a First Lieutenant coming my way.
He returns my salute…then stops me and says “Kantorski?”
Yes sir, I say.
I hear you’re a conscientious objector, Private. That you won’t carry a weapon. Is that true?
Yes sir, I say.
“What are you some kind of coward? You must be a damn coward. Won’t carry a weapon. You’ve done it, you know. You’ll never get a job in these United States. Never. Cowards don’t get jobs. Are you listening to me, troop?”
Get down and give me twenty, he says.
The twenty he was talking about was twenty pushups and get down meant now.
I remember those twenty pushups. And I remember what he said that hot and humid night.
My story is about the idea we call America, and the different ways he and I both chose to serve that idea. For it was in my service as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam war that I truly understood what that glorious word America meant.
I was 22 in 1967, and I was classified 1A by the Selective Service System, the draft board. If you were 1A then, you were among the first in line to be drafted. Thousands were being drafted every month that year.
In 1967, citing my 6 years studying for the Catholic priesthood, I applied for and received conscientious objector status.
My Army draft notice came in January 1968 and I was sent, along with many other conscientious objectors, to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio to be trained as a field medic. Field medics are the Army’s first responders and face the same dangers as their fellow soldiers do in a firefight. And the same terror.
We learned basic anatomy…all about arteries and bones, proper ways to bandage a wound, and tourniquets. How and when and where to apply a tourniquet was a special series of classes. I remember our sergeant teaching us about tourniquets, telling us not to apply a tourniquet to a guy’s neck if he had a head wound. “Really!” he said, amid our laughter.
But what we were about was serious business. I would lay in my bunk some nights, trying to imagine dealing with a serious wound as bullets whizzed all around me.
After graduating as a field medic, orders came through that I was to receive further training as an Operating Room Technician. During surgery, OR Technicians were the surgeon’s assistants. I learned how to scrub up, maintain a sterile field, and each of the surgical instruments by name. I was being trained to work in a MASH unit, a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital.
In November 1968, my permanent duty station orders came in. I was assigned to a MASH unit –the 31st Surgical Hospital in Frankfurt, Germany.
Somehow, somewhere “a simple twist of fate”, as Dylan said, intervened, and everything I had learned at Fort Sam in preparation for going to Vietnam – the anxiety and the fear of what that meant – started to subside when I reported to my MASH unit in Germany.
So, what about the idea that is America? My wife and I lived off base, we were married that year, and I would take a train to my post in my uniform. I’d look into the eyes of my fellow older passengers and wonder what they in did in their war that had ended the year I was born, just 23 years from then. I thought of what I’d tell my children when they came what I did in my war.
As it turns out, I did tell our two daughters I was proud to have served in the Army as a Operating Room Technician in a MASH unit in Germany during the Vietnam war. That I chose to do so as a conscientious objector if I were drafted. That I did so knowing, that despite that, I could have joined the many thousands who didn’t come home.
Lessons learned… My time in Germany, living in a different culture, yet serving in my culture as represented by the MASH unit. Listening and learning and feeling what a wonderful opportunity I had been given to serve my country and then to realize in turn a deep appreciation of that idea called America.
In my Army post in that foreign land, I thought of all the things we take for granted, that we believe will always be here. How precious they are in the grand scheme of things. How important we cherish and protect them.
I once asked a group of German elementary school kids what they thought about America and they all said they wanted to come here, that they wanted to meet Elvis, and have a Cadillac. America.
We are still that land of opportunity, if not to meet Elvis…but maybe to have a Cadillac.
Speaking of opportunity, that Lieutenant on that hot and humid night 54 years ago should know that I did get a job in these United States and that I savored the opportunity to start and own my own graphic design business.
Sometimes I think I’d like to meet him. I like to think that we could both celebrate the pride we share in the time we spent serving and preserving that idea called America.