Robert Flournoy
Copyright 2018 by Robert Flournoy   
Photo of high school football practice.

In August of 1963 our high school began the dreaded two a day practices.  In the hot humid Virginia heat it didn't help that our practice field was mostly dirt, which turned to dust under the churning cleated feet of football team hopefuls, and then to muddy sweat which covered our young bodies.  It was a new school, and many of the students were from military families, Langley Air Force Base and Fort Monroe being close by.  We would graduate in 1965, and given that there were so many military brats, and sons of the south to boot in that class, a lot of them would be sweating half way around the world in a place they had not heard of, yet, if unlucky enough not to go to college. By the end of the decade six of them would be dead over there, five more that did not make the team would also perish, and four more in the class who were not athletes.  A staggering total from one high school.

But, the world was still blue and beautiful when we were sixteen, and on that first day of practice I would meet Ray who would become my friend for life.  Both of our dads were career military officers newly assigned to Fort Monroe, so we not only had football in common, but that rare life of youngsters who had travelled around the world before colliding at the fifty yard line in Hampton, Virginia so long ago.  Ray would be a fullback, I would be a running back, and we quite simply loved the game with an intensity that makes me smile to this day, even when I hobble into the kitchen for coffee on cold mornings, my aches and pains the result of the reckless abandon with which we all threw ourselves into one another when we were young and strong.

Our senior year in high school we became aware of vague foggy places named Laos and Vietnam.  We were subject to reports by Walter Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley, and our own fathers, both veterans of WW2 and Korea, and more than likely headed for their third conflict.  No one could have imagined the horror that these far away places would have in store for the country in the years after we graduated. But, my own participation would be delayed, as I was off to Auburn and Ray was bound for Princeton.  It was a given that we would both join ROTC (in fact it was mandatory for the first two years) and receive commissions in the Army four years later.  We talked animatedly about Ranger and Airborne schools as a great adventure, although Vietnam loomed in our destiny with each passing year as escalation there seemed to never end.  We did not want it to end.  Our dad's went, and so would we.  Volunteers fought that war for the first four years, and we would be among them.

Auburn was in the south, where anti war sentiment was rare, Ray was in the Ivey League where protest was in force by 1969, the spring of which Ray and I would graduate and be commissioned. Ray, as a distinguished military graduate, would get his choice of branch assignment, and duty station. I, not as academically talented as Ray could only request both.  I got what I wanted, Field Artillery (my dad had been) and Ray would be in the Corps of Engineers.  As the clock ticked down toward May and wearing Army green full time, Vietnam was raging at the height of its' fury, and many of our friends from high school had been claimed as casualties.  I wanted to go. I was young, and the clearer thoughts that come with age eluded me. Looking back, voluntary participation prolonged the conflict. An odious president resigned in 1968 after starting the whole thing and left a million young men without that option.  His replacement prolonged our involvement in the war for five more long bloody years when it could have been finalized in a month.  

One day about two weeks before graduation I got a call from Ray telling me that he had informed his professor of military science that he was refusing his commission and would join the army as a private, volunteering for Vietnam as a medic, the most dangerous job on the battle field. I was stunned.  He calmly told me that the war had lost its purpose, was being managed horrendously, and that he would not help extend it by being an officer, but would do what he could as a medic for the boys who had no choice. The draft was in full swing (when it was repealed, the protests stopped overnight).  My father was outraged, and Ray's was beside himself.  While the anti war sentiment in the Ivey League was a heavy weight on Ray as an ROTC student in that environment, I never believed that it influenced his decision. He was too smart and he was his own man. He made his mind up based on moral convictions and was determined to do the right thing. Some were running to Canada, some going into hiding, but Ray presented himself for induction as a medic, bound for war.  He never made it. The Army determined him to be a conscientious objector and assigned him civilian duties in community service. He was subject o enormous introspection, scorn from the military community, and unease initially from his military family.  What he had done was just unheard of in 1969, his father being a war veteran and full colonel. Ray never looked back. He did what he thought was right. His conscience was clear.

I was proud of Ray, but determined to go, and I did, serving with an air cavalry infantry company as an artillery forward observer.  I saw many acts of bravery during my time over there, but none more poignant than what Ray had done. His act of defiance remains one of the bravest things I witnessed during that whole dreadful time.  We are best friends today. 

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