Some trials we hope grads never have to face

Published 8:00 am Wednesday, May 8, 2024

By Steve Stricker

Wednesday, May 8, 2024, peaceful, beautiful Ole Miss, secure, historic Oxford, Mississippi, middle of finals week, two more stressful days then Commencement, Saturday, May 11 – Well done y’all and good luck!

Watching the news and campus unrest across America, especially Thursday morning, May 2, at 5:00 am as police in riot gear broke up UCLA fortified encampments and violently clashed with students also in riot gear.

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Our seniors, finally poised at the proverbial door of life wide open with infinite possibilities and the world as you know it in conservative Oxford, MS safe, familiar, loving, major campus riots against the Israel/Palestine situation raging seems far from Ole Miss and surreal. 

But what if, standing on the Grove Stage this Saturday, that secure scenario was suddenly lurched away and you held draft papers from the US Army, immediately after graduation would abandon everything known, family, friends, future plans, and instead were being sent to war in the Ukraine, Israel or whatever hot combat zone after Basic Training!

May 1968, my mailbox at Southeast Missouri State University (SEMO) in the Group Housing Greek Cafeteria Complex was unusually full on that unforgettable Spring Semester day.  Sitting at a table, opened the one from our Registrar’s Office with a knot in my stomach.  

My college career beginning in the fall of 1964 was tumultuous.  My dad died the summer prior to my freshman year, almost flunked out, but by my never give up guts, God’s grace, made it to my sophomore year on probation.

At the end of that year,  I had a 2.1 GPA, off probation and every fraternity on Campus rushed and gave me a bid.  Way independent at that time, liked the Pikes, pledged, lived in the house, met Tri Deta Francie who accepted my lavalier (step before pinned), endured full-blown BS hazing, went active, and life finally was falling into place.

Registrar’s Office notified that I had mercifully met the requirements for my BS in Education and by taking one class that summer term would meet my life-time secondary teaching requirements and graduate.  Second letter United States Army – “Greetings!” I had been drafted immediately upon graduation and was to report to St. Louis for a physical ASAP! 

Standing on that August graduation stage in cap and gown, diploma one hand, draft papers other…to be able to select my own MOS enlisted for three years hoping to avoid Vietnam – No.

In that instant, teaching and life plans vanished, Francie broke up with me, Basic Training removed all traces of independence taught me in college, head shaved to look like everyone else, forced to obey all commands – as a vegetable without thinking.

Always a leader, the tough pledging made the DI’s a laugh, rather liked all that military stuff, leader in Basic Training, Class Leader AIT, and Vietnam, July 1969-July 1970…one week there almost killed in a massive rocket, mortar, sapper attack – for the rest of that horrific year I became the most eclectic soldier in Vietnam escaping deadly situations one after the other…read my book.

But, as with college campuses now, at home the Vietnam “War” was raging and being protested against especially after the massive Viet Cong Tet Offensive of 1968 proving we were not winning.  Imagine almost daily losing your life, not wanting to be there, ordered to go, and at home nobody cared while “Hanoi Jane Fonda” (excuse me, bitch) picture was on the cover of our Stars And Stripes newspaper sitting on a VC ant-aircraft gun, laughing with a North Vietnamese soldier protesting us being there along with college campuses all over America, including SEMO.

Returning home, so thankful to be alive, only to be spit on or ignored by even hometown friends because this was an “unpopular war” and we were losers….  Forget it, you can’t even begin to imagine what that pain was like, then or now and ever-present PTSD.  1968 registered the most US casualties with 16,899; 1969 11,780, and 1970 with 6,173….

I pray, Ole Miss grads, that you will not ever have to undergo this trial – Congratulations. 

Steve is an Oxford resident and received his Ph.D. in Educational Psychology (Counseling) from Ole Miss