Lots of people post pictures on the Facebook and the internet of themselves on Veteran’s Day, but I’d like to post this guy. One of my personal heroes I guess you could say. TC Gaston. He was kid from the projects of Washington D.C. He joined the Army and was a decorated Korean AND Vietnam war vet and my MP Sergeant in South Korea. In the 1970s, we were all stuck in an a crappy Army base just south of the DMZ on the west side of South Korea. We did the usual policing and force protection along with the ROK Marines and overseeing KATUSAs. Gaston never went to college but he was one of the smartest guys I’ve ever met. If you could imagine a black Clark Gable in mannerisms and speech but a wicked sense of humor and real understanding of people.
Through the years some of you have heard me talk about him. And my recollections of his fighting and uncanny way with dealing with all kinds of people (he had most of the officers afraid of him) I could tell many stories but briefly here’s one of my favorite: In the 1970s, and I hear tell in the 80s too, there was constant trouble at the DMZ, and we had various levels of alerts, but one morning, the war sirens went off. When this special baby sounded off, we appeared ASAP, even if in our skivvies, civies, Mickey Mouse pajamas or Ho Chi Minh flipflops. You got there.
In this ragtag formation a LT. told us,
“I don’t know anything about this yet, but we now are at war. Somethings happened. We are at war.”
Everyone was quickly released to scatter off to their attack positions and jobs. A few of the guys – some were missile tech guys there and in the Army only to eventually go to college – were actually sobbing. For me, I had this sick sense of being at the wrong place at the wrong time, but I was in for it. There. Not up for it, there. It’s an “oh-shit moment.”
The MPs met at our little station house and were given the force protection assignments. My job was to oversee a 50 caliber, machine gun team on the north west corner of the camp. It was facing north and overlooking the valley/rice patties that the Red Guard first invaded over in the 1950s. It was a breathtaking valley I had walked over and jogged on and now it became a ticking time bomb.
We each had an M-16 and a .45 pistol. Big problem, while we MPs had ammo for our .45s, while some of our guard staff had some M-16 ammo, we and no one else had any ammunition for the M-16s or the 50 cals! I learned later that through history, in places like Pearl Harbor, the ammo has been locked up and no one either sent release orders, or they forgot too up and down the chain of command…I don’t know…but locked-up ammo has been a problem through military time.
Gaston, now suddenly in full charge of force protection, walked in the shack having just supervised a bunch of stuff outside. Several of us said, “Sarge, we have no ammo!” He was aghast, “WHAT?” So far, he’d only had his pistol belt with mags. He disappeared and marched across the chaotic grounds of the base. He commandeered an open-backed, duce and a half (that’s a big old Army truck) jumped in the bed and standing up in the open back, ordered the driver up a long steep hill to the ammo dump. In his force protection role, he had keys to everything. Too include the ammo dump. They returned within minutes, him standing behind the cab of the open truck with bandoleers of ammo hanging over his shoulders.
At the main grounds he shouted out to all, “Ammo! Ammo!” and desperate men ran to the truck where he dispensed the ammunition to the troops.
A Captain and Lt. ran out of HQ and the C.O. said, “SGT Gaston! No one authorized that ammo release from the dump!”
Gaston gave him a dirty sneer, ignored him and continued distributing the ammo. They could not say much. I mean, how could they? Gaston whistled us over and we got our ammo too.
This little base has several operational assignments. One was to missile the holy fuck out of North Korean planes, and also bomb a few sites over the DMZ before we were over run. We were not meant to "stay." To "defend." Just hang on till the damge was done, then “retreat” the best way to Seoul.
Gaston was in full infantry mode once back in the shack. He looked pissed. He look concentrated. He looked at all of us and said,
“When they shoot off all their missiles this place is empty. Worthless. We’ll work out way back to Youngsan.” He looked into each of our eyes. “When we go, you don’t follow these officers and these college boys, you follow me! You got that? You follow me, because I am a combat muther-fucker and I’ll get you there alive.”
I’d follow that son-of-bitch anywhere. I still get goosebumps when I think about that speech. I guess ya had to be there.
We remained on war status for several days. Intense at first because we heard nothing but the classic "rumors of war." The GI radio and one TV station told us nohting. The people in the village played out their lives. We sat and stared at that valley and the skies. The thought always occurs to you in these times, "we didn't make enough sandbags!"
Then it downgraded after a few days, day by day. There were numerous alerts while I was there but none as big and serious as that one. It was all over an multiple killing incident at the DMZ that is too long and distracting to explain here.
This is a small story. I could tell many stories about Gaston. Police stories too. Like the time he knocked out a knife attacker with one punch. Or, when he played on the unit football team, damn near 60 years old, playing tackle with us kids. On the way to the games in one of the duece and a halfs, he'd have a pack of gum, ten pieces and give 9 of them away to us nearby. I noticed small stuff like that. Or the time…well…DON'T get me started.
He retired right after this tour and returned to his life in the Washington DC projects. I was on a security detail on a small mountain that overlooked the base below and I saw him get into a KATUSA jeep for last ride to Youngsan. I watched the jeep for as long as I could from up there. I never saw him again. None of us heard from him again. He had an ever-lasting impression on my life, as a cop, a soldier and person. I can still picture him on the back of that deuce and half, ammo hanging off of him, and see him handing out ammo from the back of that truck to the troops.
This Veterans Day I would like to especially salute Staff Sergeant Thomas Gaston. I ain't much in life. But whatever I am? He helped.
Hock's email is email@example.com
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