No Such Agency
By Steve Healey
“Well its one, two three. What are we fighting for?
Don’t ask me I don’t give a damn. The next stop is Viet Nam.
– “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die Rag,” Country Joe and the Fish
When I was seventeen, I decided to join the National Guard. It being late 1967, I thought it would be a good way to partially qualify for the GI bill without going to Viet Nam. My parents couldn’t afford to send me to college and I knew working my way through was not an option for me at that time. Enlisting in the reserves was also a good way to keep from being drafted and sent to Viet Nam as cannon fodder.
There were several reserve units based in Camden, NJ, about ten miles from where I lived. In November of my senior year, I visited the recruiter at the reserve center. He sent me to Ft. Dix for a physical and intelligence testing. When I returned to meet with him, he told me I passed the requirements – I was breathing, had a heartbeat, and could hold a rifle – and that I scored in the top 10% in the intelligence testing. The high test scores had qualified me for the Army Security Agency reserves, one of the units housed in that facility. ASA, he said, was an intelligence support group affiliated with the National Security Agency. That they did a lot of work with radio and communications equipment was all the recruiter seemed to know. It sounded interesting and I kind of had a knack for things electronic. So I said, “Great. Let’s do it.” I was scheduled to be inducted and head for basic training in July or August of 1968, after my high school graduation.
There wasn’t much information available on the NSA in those days. Obviously the Internet didn’t exist. Although, oddly enough, at that time the NSA was working with military and civilian computer experts in the development of a computer communications network. That research eventually did lead to the formation of the Internet. Back then though, nobody really knew much about the NSA. No one I talked to had ever heard of it. According to most people, there was “No Such Agency.”
A couple months later, after all the paperwork, tests, and physicals had been completed, I began thinking about the decision I had made. What bothered me most was the six-year commitment. Six years was one third of my life up to that point. Even though it was only two weekends a month and two weeks a year, six years would be an eternity. So I began toying with other ideas. Maybe I could enlist in an active duty branch of service, not go to Viet Nam, and still qualify for the GI Bill. Fewer people in the Navy and Air Force went to Viet Nam. However, the problem was that those branches of service required a minimum four-year enlistment which wasn’t six years but still too long for my tastes. Or, I could talk to the Army, with their three year enlistment program, and end up with a job that would send me to Japan or Germany. The Marines were not even a consideration. I knew the Marines would be a direct route to the jungles of Viet Nam.
Since the main post office in Camden was a federal building, it had recruiting offices for all branches of the military. I decided to see what the Army had to offer first. After all, I had already passed their physical and had taken their tests. As I walked into the recruiting office, a clerk, of Specialist Fourth Class rank I would eventually learn, asked if he could help me. When I told him why I was there, he asked me to have a seat and then disappeared through a door in the back of the outer office. After a couple minutes, out through that door came an enormous man with all kinds of stripes on his sleeves and a rainbow of colorful ribbons on his chest. He walked over, shook my hand and identified himself as Sergeant First Class Bill Mather, but I could call him Sergeant. He led me into his office, told me to have a seat and asked me if I would like a Coke.
“So what brings you in today?” was his first question.
“Well, I want to see what my options are if I enlist in the Army,” was my naïve reply.
“How old are you, Son?”
“Eighteen. Well, almost eighteen. I’ll be eighteen in April.”
“Are you still in school?”
“Yes. I’m a senior and I graduate in June.”
“Why are you here now? You’re still in high school. You won’t be drafted for another year or two. Most guys wait awhile after school before they go into the military. Unless they’re in trouble with the law. Are you in trouble with the law, Son?”
“Oh, no, Sergeant. I don’t get in trouble. I just want to go in and get it done with. And I thought if I enlisted, I wouldn’t have to go to Viet Nam.”
“You don’t want to go to Viet Nam, huh?”
Suddenly behind his steely grey eyes, a storm seemed to be brewing. His manner had turned so cold that it could have frozen the can of Coke I was holding.
“No, Sergeant! I don’t even know any of those people.”
“That’s good. I spent two tours in ‘Nam and I don’t cater well to all those protesters. We have a lot of good soldiers over there doing a good job. Those protesters show nothing but disrespect for those heroic boys we have in that God-forsaken country.”
So keep sending the draftees over there, I thought. I was sitting there so I wouldn’t be drafted and end up being one of those “heroic boys” over there. As we sat, the infamous Tet of 1968 offensive was in full swing. I knew all the Americans fighting that battle were not drafted. My intent was to make sure I didn’t end up being there with them.
Well, originally, I signed up for the reserves so I could do my duty and not go to Viet Nam,” I said in my defense.
“You signed up for the reserves? Tell me about that.”
I proceeded to explain to him what procedures I had gone through. I told him about the trip to Ft. Dix and the results of the physical and IQ tests. I told him how I was accepted and scheduled to be inducted over the summer, just five or six months away. And I told him I was supposed to be joining an organization called the Army Security Agency.
He froze. He just sat there. Staring at me in the most uncomfortable way. I suddenly felt like a mouse targeted by a cat.
“The Army Security Agency? Hmmm. Well, I can’t say I know a lot about ASA. That’s a pretty secretive group. Not sure what they do, but I’ve seen them at almost every overseas assignment I’ve ever had. Except for Viet Nam.”
Bingo! That’s exactly what I wanted to hear.
“Like I said, Son. Can’t tell you much, but I know who can. There’s an ASA regional recruiter up in Newark. You need to go up there and meet with him. He’s the expert and can answer all your questions.”
The bait has been set. The fishing line has been cast.
About a week later, I found myself sitting in the office of the ASA recruiter at the Federal Building in Newark, New Jersey. The Army didn’t waste any time trying to get my commitment. After all, it was 1968 and an unpopular war was putting a crimp on their recruiting.
So, why do you want to join ASA”? The question was being asked by Staff Sergeant Howard Bolden. He spoke with a bit of an accent, which I would later in life recognize as being from New England.
“Well, I really didn’t choose ASA to begin with. I wanted to sign up for the reserves and I was told I qualified for ASA,” was my reply.
“You signed up for the reserves and now you want to go regular Army? Why the change of mind?”
“I signed up for the reserves because I wanted to serve without going to Viet Nam. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought that a six year commitment was way too long. When I went to the army recruiter in Camden to talk about a regular enlistment and told him about qualifying for ASA, he sent me to see you,” I explained.
“Well, just so you know, ASA is not allowed to be in Viet Nam. In fact, according to the Geneva Convention, ASA is not allowed to be in Viet Nam or Cambodia.”
The hook has just been deeply seated in the fish’s mouth. Now begins the “reeling in.”
“What do you know about the ASA or NSA?”
“Nothing. I’d never heard of them and most of the people I talk to have never heard of them.”
“Well, the ASA is a regular Army unit that gathers and provides electronic information to the NSA – the National Security Agency. And the NSA collects a lot of intelligence on the Russians. ASA has bases around the world in places like Turkey, Alaska, Thailand, Africa, and Germany. If your test scores are any indication, there’s probably a good chance you’ll end up fixing electronic equipment. But I don’t know for sure. The Agency will place you where you best fit.”
“So I can’t pick my own school?”
“No. the agency decides. Have you been in any sort of trouble?”
“Well, the agency doesn’t want you if you’ve been in trouble with the law or been arrested. You have to pass a background check for your security clearance. They’re going to talk to your teachers. Your bosses, if you work. Your neighbors.”
“What happens if I don’t get my clearance? Can I get out of the Army?” (Silly me.)
“No. You’ll just be reassigned to another unit.”
“So I’m not guaranteed to get ASA even if I sign up for it.”
“If you wash out of your schooling, get recycled in basic training, or you can’t pass the background check, you will be disqualified and reassigned.”
“Wow. No guarantee. I have to think about this.”
“You know what, Son. You’re smart. I think you’ll get through your schools. You haven’t been in trouble, are not a protestor, are still in high school, and haven’t been arrested. I don’t think you’ll have any trouble with the background check. Unless your parents are Communists or something. Are your parents Communist?”
“Oh, no, Sergeant. They’re not communists. They’re good Americans. My pop was in the War.”
“No problem then, Son. I think you’ll be perfect for the Army Security Agency.”
Post Script #1: June 28, 1968, Army Induction Center, Federal Building, Newark, NJ
All the paperwork is filled out. Another physical is completed. I’ve convinced the psychiatrists I’m not homosexual or a secret protester. The swearing in has taken place, and I’m sitting around with everyone else, waiting to be bussed to Fort Dix. I’m looking through my enlistment papers, orders, and all the myriad paperwork that officially makes me a soldier in the US Army. On the paperwork, one date keeps coming up that I don’t recognize. The date is 6/27/72 and the acronym ETS is always next to the date.
“Hey. What’s this ETS thing on all the paperwork?” I asked another recruit sitting in a chair next to me.
He looked at me as though the psychiatrists had made a mistake. “That’s the date you get out of the Army. Estimated Termination of Service I think is the actual term.”
“Well that’s not right. That’s four years instead of three. That’s a mistake. I need to talk to someone about that….”
Post Script #2: March, 1969, Fort Gordon, GA
“First Sergeant, can you help me out here? I just got my orders and they say I’m assigned to the 509th Radio Research Group in Saigon, Viet Nam. I think this is a mistake. I signed up for ASA, got my clearance, passed my schools, and ASA is not allowed to be in Viet Nam.”
“Healey, time you grew up, boy, and saw the real world. You’re right. The Army Security Agency is not allowed to be in Viet Nam. That’s why we call it Radio Research over there.”
Post Script #3: April 23, 1969, Oakland Army Terminal, Oakland, CA
Tomorrow is my 19th birthday. We are literally locked down in a giant human warehouse. Security is tight because we are headed to ‘Nam tomorrow and they don’t want to “lose” any of us before we get on the plane. Televisions are hanging from the ceiling and the “Glen Campbell Show” is on. Campbell is singing “Wichita Lineman” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” I’m lying on a squeaky cot feeling incredibly alone despite being surrounded by hundreds of other sleepless guys also being kept awake by the same thoughts and fears as mine. Through my earphone, I repeatedly listen to “Inna-Gadda-Da-Vida” and Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bookends” on my Panasonic cassette deck, asking myself over and over, “What the hell happened?”
Post Script #4: December 1, 1969, 8th Radio Research Field Station, Phu Bai, Republic of Viet Nam
AFVN, the Armed Forces Viet Nam radio network, is doing a broadcast about the first draft lottery. The lottery was established as a “fair” way to determine who would be drafted into the military in 1970 and beyond. The draft order was decided by drawing capsules that had been placed in a glass jar. Each capsule contained a birthdate, one for each day of the year. Eligible young men were drafted according to the order their birth date was drawn. The first number drawn was September 14. The second number drawn was April 24. My birthday. I had about four months left in Viet Nam when my number was pulled. I decided they would have gotten me either way.
Post Script #5: Sunday, April 20, 1970, Anchorage Airport, Anchorage, Alaska
Operator, “I have a collect call from a Mr. Steve Healey. Will you accept the charges?”
Mom, “Well, yes. Of course.”
Operator, “Go ahead. Your call is connected.”
Me, “Hi, Mom. How are you?”
Mom, “I’m good. We’re all good. Where are you?”
Me, “Anchorage, Alaska. The airplane broke down so we’re stuck here until they can fix it.”
Mom, “You’re where?”
Me, “In Alaska.”
Mom, “Alaska! Why are you calling from Alaska?”
Me, “Well, you said to call when I got back to the states. You just didn’t say what state.”
Post Script #6: Tuesday, May 5, 1970, Maple Shade, NJ
On Monday, May 4, 1970, two weeks after I returned from Viet Nam, the Kent State Massacre took place. This occurred when the Ohio National Guard opened fire on Kent State University students protesting the war in Viet Nam and the commencement of bombing in Cambodia. Four students were shot dead and nine were injured. I was home on leave and planned to visit a friend on the campus of SUNY/New Paltz in upstate New York two days later.
Phone conversation with my friend, Cheryl:
“How are things up there?”
“Most of the students are on strike and a couple buildings are occupied. There was a small fire in the Student Union building, but it was put out pretty quickly. Many of us are still trying to finish our term papers and finals, but it’s not easy.”
“Do you still want me to come up to visit?”
“Uh, yeah. I guess it’s ok. Just don’t bring any uniforms with you.”
“Didn’t plan to.”
About a month later, with the “home front” in total disarray from the war protests and the shootings in Ohio, I climbed on a plane, headed to East Africa. It was a happy day for me. I was leaving another “warzone.”
Post Script #7: December, 1971, Personnel Office, Company A, 4th US Army Security Agency Field Station, Asmara, Province of Eritrea, Ethiopia
I had about six months to go in the Army and I was due to be transferred stateside. The Army wanted to send me to Ft. Bliss, Texas – an Army base best described by a popular military acronym of that era known as STRAC – Strategic, Tough, and Ready Around the Clock. This meant highly polished boots, perpetually pressed uniforms and a constant state of playing “real army.” Welcome to Ft. Bliss. It was the exact opposite of “relaxed” Asmara and that definitely didn’t appeal to me. I much preferred to spend my last six months in Ethiopia. I submitted paperwork to extend in Asmara through the end of my enlistment and the extension was accepted.
“Good afternoon, sir. I was told to report to you, sir.”
“Have a seat, Healey. I understand you just extended here for your last six months in the Army.”
“Yes, sir. I was going to be reassigned to Fort Bliss, TX, for my last six months so I asked for the extension to stay here rather than go back stateside.”
“I know. I signed off on your request. However, things have changed. Have you heard the term RIF, reduction in forces?”
“Yes, sir. I’ve heard about it.”
“Well now you’re more than hearing about it. You are a part of it. You need to make a choice, Specialist. You need to either reenlist for six years or you will be out of the Army by the end of the month.”
“Thank you, sir. There is no choice. I won’t be reenlisting.”
In 1968, most young men just out of high school had just a few options – go to college, join a trade union, or end up in the military either through enlistment or the draft. I tried to control my destiny, but obviously the U.S. government had other ideas.
My actual ETS was January 3, 1972. I spent three years, six months, and six days on active duty. After basic training, I was in Georgia for seven months in electronics schools. I then spent two and a half years overseas, a year in Viet Nam and eighteen months in East Africa. After being in Georgia for seven months, Viet Nam was a relief.
Not once during my recruitment did the term “Radio Research” or a four year enlistment requirement come up in conversation. This was the military’s original “Don’t Ask – Don’t Tell” policy. “If they don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Epilogue: Circa 2001, Marlton, New Jersey
“What did you do in the war, Daddy?
“What did I do in the war, sweetheart? I kept my head down and developed a huge grudge against a government that taught me, at a very young age, that they will lie and cheat to get whatever they want.”
Especially when they want bodies for war.