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Don’t Let The Bastards Getcha Down

 

Chapter Seven (01)

 

Same As It Ever Was...


I took off from Massachusetts in my Lotus Europa and
landed three days later in Oklahoma on August 19th. My
welcome to Oklahoma reception arrived in the form of a state
trooper pulling me over and giving me my first speeding
ticket within the first half hour in the state. The next day
Second Lieutenant Hagopian reluctantly reported for duty,
officially entering the Field Artillery Officer Basic Course
(FAOBC). From way back soldiers were sent to Fort Sill as a
punishment to fight Indians when it served as an early Army
outpost on the Plains. Though I knew if the Navy rejected me
because of my court case, I was obviously going to be
blackballed in the Army. That said, I kept telling myself to
keep an open mind and give my first officer assignment a
chance.
Then came everyday in the classroom. I joined about
fifty other classmates from the Point who also selected
Field Artillery as their branch of Army service. We spent
hours and days in the classroom taking gunnery classes. We
sat through endless boring lectures and training films that
introduced us to the Army’s biggest guns delivering the most
firepower in the world. Trained on the 155mm and the 105mm
howitzers, soon enough we were on the artillery range
learning to fire these weapons as gunnery crew trainees.

Fort Sill Artillery battery in training firing a Howitzer

Each day the training officers taught us lieutenants the
intricate duties as a firing section leader, a forward
observer and the detailed operations of the fire direction
center (FDC). We were exposed to duties associated with US
Army captains that typically lead a field artillery battery
most often consisting of six howitzers and their gunnery
crews. A battery commander in the Field Artillery is the
equivalent of a company commander in the Infantry.
All day long we would hear the trainers proudly
referring to the Field Artillery’s mission of “putting steel
on the target.” Every single time I heard their favorite
expression said with such gusto and smile, I thought about
the human targets these guns were made to kill. After
awhile, their smug glee derived from putting steel on the
target made me sick. It reminded me of the film “Apocalypse
Now” where the bloodthirsty colonel smells napalm in the
morning and remarks how it “smells like victory.” I
realized then becoming an expert destroyer of life on the
big guns scale was not what I wanted to do with my life.
Through my tortuous years of West Point and now the Army, I
was learning that I was never meant to be a military
warrior. Perhaps like my father I would have been in a
different time and place, but not in 1973. The sheer loss,
waste and destruction of the ten year Vietnam War that for
America just ended taught me that war can never be
justified, except only in self-defense. My true values,
spiritual beliefs and principles increasingly were at odds
with my job as a Field Artillery officer. As I matured and
learned from all the adversity and stress I had endured, I
came to realize that I cherish life far more than destroying
it, and to be a cog in a wheel that’s part of the war
machine was really the last thing I should be doing with my
life.
The Army didn’t want me, and I didn’t want the Army.
Everyday I hated going to school learning to put steel on
the target. I found myself merely going through the daily
motions. The inner conflict was mounting within me with each
passing week. In good conscience, I could no longer justify
what I was doing there. And within a month at Fort Sill, I
refused to study the intricacies and technical bullshit
required to pass the frequent quizzes and tests on putting
steel on the target. Ultimately I concluded West Point and
the Army was one big mutual mistake. So when my battery
commander called me into his office to discern why a West
Pointer was flunking the officer basic course, I decided to
just be honest and simply tell him the truth.
“Sir, I realize the Army never wanted me, well, I have
to tell you the feeling’s more than mutual. Me ever going to
West Point was a regrettable mistake. I know I’m not doing
the Army any favor being here, and the Army’s definitely not
doing me any favor. So I’ve concluded the US Army would be
far better off without me just as much as I’d be better off
without the Army sir.” I watched the captain’s jaw drop.
“Lieutenant Hagopian, you sure have a lot of nerve!
This isn’t a summer camp you can just walk away from. Just
’cause you won a court case at West Point, you are no
different from any other Second Lieutenant coming through
here. As an officer in the United States Army, I suggest you
start taking FAOBC a little more seriously Lieutenant, if
you know what’s good for you!” the captain sternly warned.
Soon I was receiving Article 15’s for the exact same
Mickey Mouse offenses as I got at West Point. As a US Army
officer I was living under the poverty level because of the
fines incurred for having long sideburns and dirty shoes
(unavoidable in the “Okie-homa” dust bowl).

The long sideburned Lieutenant

As I continued
failing the course, the stern lectures and warnings turned
more threatening and nasty. Soon I was receiving daily
threats of a dishonorable discharge from my “superiors” that
became the all too familiar scenario. Once again the Army
was deploying a near identical strategy that the Academy
utilized, applying increasing pressure over time, both
psychological and financial, on me to conform with their
game. It was the exact same power struggle I had faced,
endured and defeated at the Point. But there in Oklahoma I
was reaching the point of no return, as I continued flunking
their “steel on the target” school. Soon I found myself
face-to-face with the top dog at Fort Sill himself,
Commanding Lieutenant General Ott.
“As a recent West Point graduate, you have a five year
commitment to serve your nation Hagopian. You owe the Army
and American taxpayers five years for your eighty thousand
dollar education you received at West Point,” reminded Ott.
“Sir, I’m no good to the Army. You know it and I know
it,” I matter-of-factly replied.
“Lieutenant Hagopian, I have never ever seen such a
brazenly disgraceful attitude and behavior in all my thirty
years as a US Army officer! You’re a sad disgrace to
yourself, your family, West Point and your country!”
“Sir with all due respect, the Academy didn’t want me,
the US Navy didn’t want me, the US Army didn’t want me, and
it’s clear, you don’t want me either. Now with a track
record like that, I have no intention of staying where I
know I’m not wanted. Let’s face it sir, as a lowly Reserve
officer, I am of no service to you here, and the Army is
without a doubt of no service to me. So let’s just be
honest, and cut our losses and quit now sir.” 
“You insolent little bastard! Get out of my office!”
I was done jumping through their hoops and playing
their games. Now at this point, I felt I had nothing left to
lose. Leaving the general’s office that day I actually felt
a huge weighty burden had suddenly been lifted off my chest.
I was done. Though I did not want a dishonorable discharge,
especially for the trivial stupid reasons that were the
basis for their Article 15 punishments, I didn’t care any
more. And though I knew their tactics were highly unfair and
wrong, I had had enough of their shit and had the attitude
of “come what may.” That’s how exhausted and worn down I’d
become with year after year of their nonstop pressure and
bullshit.
Meanwhile on 9/11 of that year 1973, another day of
infamy was taking place. Kissinger covertly led the CIA and
military intelligence in mobilizing a coup that assassinated
and overthrew democratically elected Chilean President
Salvador Allende and placed military dictator General
Augusto Pinochet into power. 1,200–3,200 citizens were
killed, up to 80,000 were interned, and up to 30,000 were
tortured by his government including women and children.
While I was fighting the oppressive military at Fort Sill,
the US was bloodying its hands backing yet another vile
dictator committing heinous human rights violations on his
own people. So much for spreading our brand of democracy.
I remember hating Fort Sill so much that I think on the
Veterans Day three day weekend I jumped in my car and just
started driving. After a second speeding ticket in my Lotus
the month before, the lovely state of Oklahoma had taken my
license away. But that did not stop me from taking the
enormous risk of driving for miles and miles nonstop through
the deep South, finally stopping for the night in Elvis’
birthplace Tupelo, Mississippi. There I was with my fire
engine red sports car with New York plates driving through
Dixieland without even a license. They could have locked me
up down there and thrown away the key, with no cousin Vinnie
to come and rescue me. But that should indicate just how
much anguish I was in that I impulsively would jump in my
car in southwestern Oklahoma and not get out until
Mississippi. It was not unlike those miserable Saturday
nights as a high schooler alone in my room trying to connect
on the radio with as far a place as possible from where I
was. The common overlapping theme - anyplace is better than 
where I was, and the farther, even better.
One cool thing I did was spontaneously stop off on my
way back to Fort Sill in Jonesboro, Arkansas where my old
West Point G-1 buddy Hank hailed from to look up his parents
and say hello. I quickly learned why Hank was a such a good
guy as his parents immediately invited me to dinner as my
gracious and friendly hosts. With the tough time I was going
through, their Southern hospitality and delicious home
cooked meal was just the warm, gentle reprieve I needed.
On October 10th, 1973 Nixon’s right hand man, Vice
President Spiro Agnew, became the first VP in American
history to resign in dishonor and disgrace. Actually nearly
a century and a half earlier one other Vice President had
resigned but John C. Calhoun had broken with his President
Andrew Jackson and elected to run again to resume his South
Carolina Senator seat where he achieved more power, fame and
influence. In keeping with the current wave of corruption
and scandal rocking and soon-to-be dooming his boss Nixon
with Watergate simultaneously choking the office of the
presidency, Spiro was forced to resign just prior to
pleading no contest to criminal charges of income tax
evasion. Completely independent of what was bringing down
the President and “All the President’s Men,” it was
uncovered that while governor of Maryland, Spiro Agnew had
accepted more than one hundred thousand dollars in bribes.
Crooked birds of a feather flock together... 
Meanwhile, back at Fort Sill, a few weeks after my
Veterans Day road trip, the even longer lasting Thanksgiving
holiday weekend arrived. So I was at it again. My nearest
family was my oldest sister, her husband and their young
daughter living out in Los Angeles. And since Fort Sill was
the last place I wanted to be on the most traditional family
holiday of them all, I jumped in my Lotus again on late
Wednesday afternoon Thanksgiving Eve, and drove like a
maniac all night long falling asleep at the wheel. Through
the overnight darkness of Arizona, I recall repeatedly
opening the windows, blasting both air and the radio, and
repeatedly praying to God for dawn’s early light to re-
energize me and keep me safe. By the time I outlasted the
darkness, I was in the California desert. But like the
poppies in the “Wizard of Oz,” the desolate, all-the-same
desert landscape put me right to sleep again, until I
abruptly woke up on the Interstate 10 guardrail. And my
little fiberglass plastic toy had a huge gash in its side
its entire length. What comes to mind suddenly is the Eagles
singing “Welcome to the Hotel California...” even though
that song came four years later. It didn’t much matter to
delirious, sleep-deprived me. Time and space were one
surrealistic dream as I finally began seeing the megalopolis
of Southern California around noontime Thanksgiving for the
very first time in my life. Though both my vehicle and I
were moderately impaired at this point, when I drove up to
my sister’s place around two in the afternoon, my quest to
arrive on time for a family Thanksgiving dinner was joyfully
fulfilled. And I thanked God for it, my very life and my
sister and her family when I gave grace at their turkey
feast dinner table two hours later. At least I had two full
days to recoup in Los Angeles before I had to turn around to
head back to the hornet’s nest waiting back at Fort Sill.
Seemed like the enemy was moving in for the kill,
issuing my third Article 15 upon my return. This time it was
for showing up to a training event ten minutes late. My LA
family was supportive and sympathetic to my cause and
advised me to come back during the longer yearend holiday
break and consult with an attorney my brother-in-law knew.
But then my Fort Sill superior officers threatened to cancel
my Christmas leave request. If I didn’t get out of there, I
knew I wouldn’t last much longer. I was becoming desperate
and reckless when I frantically called my sister days before
Christmas. I was starting to break down, “They’re fucking
with me, they’re saying I won’t be able to leave for
Christmas now. I’m gonna be trapped here. I can’t take it
any more Billie!” Their insanity was clearly getting to me.
“They’re trying to break you Joachim. We have a lawyer
lined up whose going to help you get out. Just be strong and
play their game. We’ll help you get through this. It’s going
to be alright Joachim,” my sister reassured me.
“They’re fucking with me! I can’t take it any more! I’m
going fucking nuts here in this hell hole!,” I was breaking.
At the last minute they let me go. So I traversed the
twelve hundred mile stretch to my sister’s in Southern
California, this time driving more safely without the
urgency of having to get there by next day’s dinner.
I had an appointment set up a couple days prior to
Christmas with a well known Los Angeles attorney named
Bill Smith. He was a champion fighter helping mostly low
income and minority clients challenge the draft during the
Vietnam War. He became the expert in this low profit area of
law because he was so committed and passionate to his cause
of peace and justice. Bill even had a small role playing
himself as Michael Douglas’ draft attorney in 1971’s gem of
a sleeper called “Summertree,” a powerfully moving depiction
of the common struggle many faced with the unfair draft and
unfairer war at the time. After the war in Vietnam, Bill
dedicated his life to helping veterans and was instrumental
in rewriting veterans law, ensuring they were fairly
compensated by the government responsible for damaging them.
Bill died a hero a few years back. But his legacy will
always be remembered and cherished. He and his fellow
attorney wife Carol both represent the best of lawyers who
tirelessly and passionately work for those in our society
that most need assistance, the disenfranchised and poor.
They went into law for all the right reasons and they have
truly made a difference. They are the antithesis of the
lawyer stereotype that sells his soul to the devil.  
So in December 1973 for a nominal fee, Bill agreed to
take on my case and told me upfront I have two options to
try and extricate myself from the Army’s bondage. The first
approach was I could see a psychiatrist and pursue making a
case for psychological stress and incompatibility that could
facilitate an honorable medical discharge.
The other strategy was that I could also file a claim
as a conscientious objector (CO) on the grounds that I could
no longer in good conscience continue wearing a military
uniform. I had been moving in this direction anyway, even
prior to this crossroad, for months internally struggling
with all the conflict and turmoil stirring inside me. So I
proceeded proactively with a two-pronged counterattack on
the Army at Fort Sill to earn my honorable discharge, rather
than passively submit to and accept defeat with the Army’s
ongoing agenda building a solid case for a dishonorable
discharge against me. I promptly filled out the
conscientious objector claim forms specifying my moral
objections to putting steel on human targets. It truly
violated my evolving consciousness and spiritual principles.
As of 1973 I had come to a place in my rather turbulent life
journey and personal development where I absolutely refused
to willfully kill other humans, regardless of circumstance.
And continuing to wear the uniform of a Field Artillery
officer was morally and spiritually reprehensible to me.
Knowing I was due back at Fort Sill in early January,
Bill quickly arranged an appointment to see Dr. Younger in
his San Fernando Valley office the day after Christmas. The
psychiatrist had me immediately filling out the gargantuan
570 question Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory
(MMPI), among the most popularly used questionnaires for
assessing potential mental disorders. Though I was aware how
my affirmative response to the question, “Are people out to
get you?,” would be interpreted that I’m crazy paranoid, I
honestly and painfully knew it to be true back in Oklahoma.
So I went with it knowing Younger would be diagnosing me as
mentally unstable and likely a paranoid schizophrenic. But
if telling the truth could help me get out of the Army, I
was willing to live with the consequences. After all, simply
telling the truth was my goal all along. But that said, I
was not fully prepared for Younger’s knee-jerk response,
“Joachim, you’re at severe risk of a full blown psychosis
if you go back to Fort Sill. I’m immediately prescribing
medication for you and admitting you today to Van Nuys
Psychiatric Hospital.” Never having had any mental health
issues or experience as a psychiatric patient, it really
took me by surprise. I knew in my heart and mind that I was
not mentally ill nor near a psychotic break, despite the
acutely stressful situation I was facing in Oklahoma. When
I contacted Bill to inform him of the doctor’s intention to
commit me within the hour, Bill was delighted, verbalizing
this exceeded even his expectation and would significantly
strengthen my case. I was nervous as hell, not knowing what was in store.

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