NOTHING MORE THAN HIRED KILLERS

My name is Ray Cantrell and I live in Cherokee County, Oklahoma.

Like so many people in Cherokee County, I am a Cherokee tribal member. My father was in the Navy during WWII and two of his brothers were in the Army, one of which survived the Battle of the Bulge. Five of my brothers-in-law were in the service, one of which was wounded in Viet Nam. This same brother-in-law’s wife had a brother that died in Viet Nam. My brother was also in the Army and retired as a Major.

I volunteered for the draft in December of 1969 after my birthday came up number 3 in the draft lottery in the summer of that same year. Rather than waiting to be drafted, I enlisted in the Army for two years. Within days of enlisting, I received my draft notice. I was sent to Ft. Polk, La. for basic training in January of 1970. It was a cold, damp place and the whole company fell ill with URI. I remember passing out in the latrine and waking up on the floor. After basic, I got orders to attend MP school at Ft. Gordon, Ga. I was certain after MP school that I would be headed to Vietnam. However, the Army had started a new MOS, 95C, Correctional Specialist and the first 25 in alphabetical order were sent to this new school, also at Ft. Gordon. I served from 12/69 to 11/71 and was an Army M.P. during 1970 to 1971. Because of my MOS, I remained in the states.

It seems that in the summer of 1969, Playboy Magazine had published a blistering story about Army corrections and specifically the conditions at the barracks at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas. This was a prison where service members were sent to service out their sentences and totally separate from the federal prison also located in Leavenworth. So to repair their image and improve the overall training of correctional staff, the Army established this new school. For newly arriving staff at these stockades, we could expect shift work and the most undesirable jobs like tower guard, inside security or transport. The challenge of trying to stay awake at 2:00 in the morning was made easier by an NCO that would walk around the perimeter and throw rocks at the tower.

Like everyone else, I did all of those jobs until I was assigned to the Processing Cell Block, a maximum-security unit, where all newly arriving detainees were received. Because I had a modest ability to type, I soon found myself interviewing those detainees and making recommendations about discharge or reintegration back into the Army. For those that wanted another chance to fulfill their obligation, they were given the opportunity to complete basic training. That meant they would be sent to Ft. Riley, Kansas. To get them there meant a trip on a commercial airline. I made that trip a few times and it was a bit unnerving because we usually had a plane load with enlisted personnel with unknown intentions. Some pilots would insist that we surrender our weapons upon boarding and others would settle for us taking our clips out of our .45 pistols. At any rate, we were vastly outnumbered. I also had to take prisoners to the Disciplinary Barracks, which also involved another long flight. To be sent there, the service member had to have been sentenced to 1 year or more of confinement. I remember taking our prisoners to the gate at he Barracks and a bucket being lowered from the tower so we could place our weapon in it. Because of security measures, no weapons could be taken into the facility.

Most of the detainees we dealt with had gone AWOL or deserted. However, some had committed serious crimes like assault, robbery and murder. I remember two Puerto Rican soldiers had killed a fellow trainee at Ft. Jackson, South Carolina and to get them off the base, they were sent to Georgia. Another soldier I vividly remember had recently returned from Viet Nam. He had developed a heroin habit over there and it was soon discovered once he returned to the states. The Army took a hard stance against drug addiction and he was given little sympathy once he started his withdrawals. He had to be restrained several times because he would smash his head into his cell door. He eventually was able to get a spring off of his bunk and use it to stab himself in the stomach. It was not uncommon for assaults to occur in the stockade. The inmates were young men that for the most part, wanted out of the Army. He was sent to the hospital, which had been his goal. I was stabbed in the arm with a pencil on one occasion and slammed against a desk during another fight. They were hardly injuries that legends are made of but an aggravation nonetheless. We usually gave as much as we got because we were young also and we weren’t about to be intimidated. I discharged in November of 1971 as a Sgt. E5 and soon reentered college and graduated in 1973.

Like most veterans of that era, I heard negative comments. I once heard an instructor tell his class that the military “Is nothing more than hired killers.” I am so glad that today’s veterans are viewed with respect and honored, as they should be. After graduating, I worked in corrections for the State of Oklahoma before transferring to the Pardon and Parole Board, where I retired as a district supervisor. All in all, I view my service with pride and I know I have received far more than I gave. I also know that my service pales in comparison to so many that served in country and gave so much. My wife and I live in the country. My wife and I have two sons and three grandchildren one which is grown, and his name is Cesar. This is a picture of our grandson, Anthony on Veteran’s Day at his elementary school.

My experience as a Correctional Specialist with Army Corrections was crazy and violent at times, but I’m convinced that my worst day was still better than those Vietnam Vets had on their best day.

Thank you for publishing the books, Never Forgotten, The Vietnam Veteran Fifty Years Later as well as Vietnam and Beyond. I’m certain many of the guys in these books found a certain degree of peace by putting their thoughts and memories to paper.

~ Ray Cantrell, Vietnam Era Vet

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