The nickname for combat support service members whose job puts them in the “Rear Echelon” is an acronym, “REMF.” Once you know what the “R” and the “E” stand for, it’s obvious that the last two letters are not flattering. Service members and veterans, like everyone else, self-categorize, making others feel less worthy if they haven’t seen and done the worst of the worst.
Maj. Douglas R. Bey, a division psychiatrist with the 1st Infantry Division in Vietnam, noted that “noncombat troops in the rear were treated with total disdain by combat troops, who faced greater risk and hardship. Support and service troops were aware of how they were regarded by ‘real’ combat troops and invariably felt varying degrees of guilt in their presence.”
As if those in the “rear,” or even here at home, are never at risk.
A headline last year from military.com reads, “Training kills more troops than war.” The story, citing statistics provided by the Senate Armed Services Committee, calculated that, in 2018, “nearly four times as many military personnel died in training accidents as were killed in combat.” That’s been the trend since 2011. As I wrote this, three soldiers died at Fort Stewart, Georgia, in an accident involving the tank-like Bradley Fighting Vehicle.
We should remember that more than 10,000 casualties of Vietnam were from noncombat-related accidents, homicides, illnesses or suicides. And that 15,000 airmen were killed during stateside flight training between 1941 and 1945. And don’t assume that U.S. bases here are never in the line of fire. Fort Hood, Texas, has been the site of two mass shootings. The fact that both shooters were from the Army’s own ranks does not mean that the victims were any less of a target, directly because of their military service.
Back in 1967, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara convinced President Lyndon Johnson to lower the standards for enlistment qualifications. Called “Project 100,000,” it was outwardly intended to provide those who scored too low on the aptitude test to still get the benefits of military service. The program brought in 350,000 “Category 4” recruits through conscription and voluntary enlistment. They were referred to by some as “McNamara’s Morons.” Myra McPherson, author of “Long Time Passing: the Haunted Generation,” described the program as “a one-way ticket to Vietnam, where these men fought and died in disproportionate numbers.”
One of those “Morons” was my husband, even though he didn’t realize it until 50 years later. He enlisted in 1969 as a combat engineer, making him a “REMF” in Vietnam. After he left the Army, he completed a college degree in the usual four years, re-enlisted and took night classes to get a master’s degree. He got into Officer Candidate School, and was assigned to the Adjutant Corp (Army-talk for administration). But those Rear Echelon specialties were as disrespected at OCS as anywhere else in the military, especially by those who chose infantry or artillery. That probably added to the ire of his fellow cadets when he won the Physical Training Award, even though he was one of the oldest in the class.
At OCS, one of their rituals was for one of them to stand in the middle of the mess hall at the position of attention, holding an upright fly swatter, protecting the other diners from any airborne insects that might be attracted to their plates. “The Fly Guard” had to be fast, aim well and, most importantly, know how to dispose of the unappetizing “kill” discretely. My husband was, and still is, an ace at zapping flies.
He is also one of the smartest people I know, living proof that calling anyone a “moron” is, well, just stupid. One of his life’s accomplishments has been composing music dedicated to his service in Vietnam. Performances of his “Symphony for the Sons of Nam” have been hosted in places like the Ho Chi Minh Conservatory, where it happened to be played on Sept. 11, 2001. Afterward, several Vietnamese citizens approached him to offer their sympathies for the attack on his country that, not so long before, had used airplanes to bomb many of their own people.
I’ve had people ask me, “What was your war?” as if all veterans are defined by a conflict. When I tell them that one of my enlistment terms coincided with our questionable invasion of Grenada, I have to remind them what happened there in 1983, where 19 service members died. I also like to remind people that the U.S. military has been involved in humanitarian missions, as well as wars; people seem to forget that, too. It’s almost as if serving in “peacetime” doesn’t count. But it does. Peace is the goal here.
For all those who may feel underestimated or even unappreciated for not doing anything dangerous or notable, you’ve underrated yourselves, just like they did with “McNamara’s Morons.” So, when someone says, “Thank you for your service,” tell them what you did, and leave out the part where you normally might shrug and say, “I was just a supply clerk.”
You wore the uniform. There is no Rear Echelon in that.