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Published September 3, 2019

THE VIEW FROM MY SEAT

Military life was less dangerous with a journalism degree

Army Trainee Gutierrez from El Paso

By Ernie Williamson / The Bulletin

El Paso. Every time I hear that city’s name in the news I can’t help but think of an encounter I had with an El Pasoan decades ago.

It was an encounter in Army basic training that transformed me from a cocky recent college grad into someone who realized he didn’t know everything. It was a lesson in life.

I knew him only by the nametag on his basic training uniform: Gutierrez.

I didn’t even know his first name as we sat next to each other before taking a critical basic training test at Fort Ord in California.
I overheard him tell others he was only 17. He had dropped out of high school in El Paso and had volunteered to join the Army because he needed a job, even if it meant that job may be carrying an M-16 through Vietnam jungles.

The test that day involved taking apart and putting together weapons. Our drill sergeant threatened us with repeating basic training if we didn’t pass the test.

Prior to being drafted, I had never touched a gun in my life. And my journalism degree from the University of Missouri wasn’t helping me reassemble the weapons in front of me.

Gutierrez finished early and watched as I struggled. Then, with no prompting from me, motioned for me to push the weapons closer to him. Each time the drill sergeant walked away, the high school dropout would help the college graduate pass the test.
To this day I wonder why he put himself at risk to help a stranger. I am ashamed to admit I doubt I would have done the same thing had our roles been reversed.

A year later I was in Vietnam. This time my education helped me. I landed a cushy job writing stories and press releases out of Army headquarters on the huge base at Long Binh.

The base was 19 miles in circumference with movie theaters, restaurants, swimming pools, libraries, and clubs where you could buy Carling Black Label beer for 10 cents a can.

Every once in a while I would go out into the field for a story. Each time I saw the miserable conditions and dangers the infantry troops were facing, I couldn’t help but wonder about Gutierrez and other soldiers without a higher education. I doubt the system worked as well for them as it had for me.

I knew Gutierrez had been assigned to infantry combat training. Did the kid who helped me pass a test end up in the steamy jungles of Vietnam while I sat in an air-conditioned office writing hometown news releases for the Army? If so, did he make it home to El Paso?

As my civilian journalism career progressed, and I was in positions to hire people, I would often remind myself of the lesson a 17-year-old dropout had taught me: Education is important, but so is character.

In retirement I hadn’t thought much about Gutierrez until the mass murders by a white supremacist in El Paso at Cielo Vista Mall. I wonder if he or any of his friends or relatives had ever been at that mall, or, God forbid, were there that day.

I hope he is O.K.

(Ernie Williamson welcomes reader input. Please contact Ernie at williamsonernie@gmail.com)