Fighting Men

By Sammy Roth



When Tulane University football player Vic Eumont enlisted in the Army in 1969 to avoid being drafted, he expected to go straight to Vietnam. instead, he found himself in Germany coaching football.


The Cold War was in full swing, but the American military was not doing any fighting in Europe, so the Army started a command-level sports league. Eumont, a second lieutenant in the Theater Army Support Command, or TASCOM, division, was named the head coach of the TASCOM Titans football team. Eumont traveled to American bases across Europe, holding tryouts to recruit other TASCOM soldiers to his team. He was allowed to take his wife and young daughter, as he was not in a combat zone.


“It was a great experience for my wife, a great experience for my daughter,” Eumont said. “We actually saw just about all of Europe. I went over there as a military officer, but I was really a football coach and tourist.” Eumont is now Head Football Coach at Harvard-Westlake.


Ninth grade dean Paul Mastin, upper school math teacher Kent Nealis, and middle school history teacher John Johnson, among others, have all served in the military as well.



Enrollment and training


During the Vietnam War, before conscription into the military ended in 1973, 2.2 million men were drafted. At the time, Johnson was a graduate student at UCLA, seemingly safe from the draft because of his student deferment. Then deferments for graduate students were eliminated.


“I was scared to death, I was resentful, I was angry,” Johnson, a critic of the Vietnam War, said. “I contemplated running off to Canada.” In 1969, Johnson was drafted into the Marine Corps.


Mastin, who had protested against the Vietnam War, was an undergraduate student at Cal State Northridge and could have sought a student deferment, but school was not high on his list of priorities. Mastin decided not to wait to be drafted and enrolled in the Air Force because of its relatively low casualty rate.


By the time Nealis enrolled at Loyola Marymount University in the mid-1970s, U.S. involvement in Vietnam had ended, and the draft had been eliminated, but Nealis had a strong desire to serve his country as a Marine. Before being sent overseas or even stationed here at home, soldiers have to go through rigorous training: for most it is called boot camp.


“It was six weeks of genuine hell,” Mastin said. The requirements for passing included running a six-minute mile.


“At first, I thought there was no way I was gonna make it,” Mastin said. “And you do it, and it just shows you that you can do just about anything you put your mind and body to.”


As part of the Marines’ even more difficult training process, Johnson had to do an additional six weeks of Advanced Infantry Training.


“Probably the worst experience of my life,” he said.


Nealis went through a different training route than most because of his interest in special operations. After his initial training in San Diego, he spent time at an Army Ranger School. Next, he trained with the Special Warfare division of the Navy.



Troubled soldiers


In 1971, the Army dismantled Eumont’s football league. Eumont was promoted to captain and sent to Vietnam, where he was stationed at an equipment storehouse. U.S. involvement in Vietnam was winding down, and Eumont was relatively safe.


“War is war, but there are areas of the war that are safer than here,” Eumont said. “The year that I was in Vietnam, there were more people killed in New Orleans than there were in Vietnam.”


Mastin expected to be sent to Vietnam, but he ended up serving stateside, repairing C-130 rescue planes because of his college math background. And with a lot of downtime on these bases, Mastin, a staff sergeant, started coming up with games for his unit to play, ranging from the card game ‘War,’—”which was kind of ironic, because we were in the military”—to a game Mastin invented himself, which involved kicking rocks across an airplane hangar into the massive tracks for the hangar doors.


“I was known to be the game-creator,” Mastin said.


This pastime brought him into conflict with his superiors. At one point, a lieutenant told Mastin to cut the games.


“They called me in and said, ‘Sergeant, you really don’t like it here, do you?’” Mastin recalled. “And I said, ‘That’s the absolute truth.’”



‘Routine nonsense’


After boot camp, Johnson was sent straight to Vietnam, where he was put in charge of typing up his company’s daily report. Although the supply depot where he was stationed often came under rocket attacks, this job kept him mostly out of harm’s way.


More than the violence, Johnson remembers the “routine nonsense” of the military.


He experienced this nonsense firsthand on a cold, rainy night. The next day, a general was coming to inspect his base, and there was an unfinished bunker which the same general had criticized some months before.


The solution: the whole company worked through the night to take the sandbags from another, finished bunker and transfer them to the unfinished one. That way, at least, the general would not criticize the same bunker two inspections in a row. Little was accomplished in the dark and the rain. By the end of the night there were two unfinished bunkers.


“That’s the kind of nonsense that can go on,” Johnson said. “Such is military life.”



Special Ops


Nealis was made a captain in a special forces company. He says that there are limits to what he can talk about, but he engaged not only in scouting and reconnaissance work, but often in combat.


“[Combat] was terribly frightening. I was more scared than I have ever been in my life,” Nealis said. “My experience was, it’s nothing like you see in the movies. Everything is happening very fast, it’s very loud, and it’s frightening because people are getting hurt around you.” Despite this, Nealis knew he made the right choice by signing up for the Marines. He often wonders if he should have made a career out of it.


“I really found it to be a wonderful experience,” he said. “I was given a great deal of responsibility at a very young age, which is something I don’t think you necessarily get when you go right into civilian work after graduating from college. And so I was able to at a very young age develop leadership skills, learn how to make decisions under pressure with imperfect information.”



Looking back


Eumont was discharged four months early. Even though he was only in Vietnam for one relatively peaceful year, he did not like what he saw.


“That’s the problem with war, it’s the people that aren’t involved in the war that suffer, more than the people that are in the war,” Eumont said.


Johnson was discharged after 13 months in Vietnam. His displeasure at having to serve in the military has softened over time, and he thinks that the experience left him with at least one understanding that many people might not have.


“I found that an awful lot of smart people, and pleasant people, and people that you can like and enjoy, never got to college,” he said. “I’m not quick to assume that everybody who’s in the military is some dummy. I mean, I know differently.”


Nealis’ initial five-year commitment to the Marines ended in 1984. And after a 10-year stint in the Reserves—during which he was called to serve in the Gulf War—Nealis left the military for good.


“There’s an awful lot about being in the military that is very frightening and scary,” Nealis said. “And the people that you’re with when you experience those kinds of moments are people that you’re going to have a very special bond and kinship with.”


Mastin left the Air Force at the end of his two-year commitment. And although he did not feel so positively about the military at the time, looking back he sees it in a somewhat different light.


“I remember it teaching me discipline,” he said. “I still wouldn’t do it again, but it was what I needed at the time, exactly what I needed. Because when I came back I was focused, I was driven, I was into school. Your head changes once you come out of the military. You’re a different person.”

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