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By rg cantalupo
An incomplete version of this article was printed in the Spring 2023 issue of The Veteran, Volume 53, Number 1.
Going AWOL on DOD Day, May 7, 1970
“I can’t sign this.”
The clerk looked up, puzzled.
“That’s your discharge papers.”
“It says I’m the same as I was when I was inducted. I’m not.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, I’m not the same. I was wounded three times. My head’s fucked up. My left arm is still half-paralyzed. I have scars and shrapnel through my body. So no, I’m not the same.”
“It’s just a formality. If you have disability issues, you can file with the Veteran’s Administration.”
“I’m still not signing.”
“If you don’t sign your discharge papers, you can’t be discharged.”
I handed him back the stack of papers and started to walk out.
“Where are you going?”
“You can’t leave until you sign your discharge papers.
Now I was angry.
“Look, the Army drafted me for two years. My two years are up today, so I’m going home.”
“If you leave without signing your discharge papers, you’ll be AWOL.”
“Fine. Arrest me for going AWOL. I’m going home.”
By this time, an officer in the adjacent office came out. I guess he overheard the conversation. He was tall, a Captain, about thirty, and I could tell by his demeanor he was a combat veteran like me.
“What’s the problem?”
“He doesn’t want to sign his discharge papers.”
The Captain studied me, then looked down at my discharge papers.
“If you don’t sign your discharge papers, we have to send your records to a medical board.”
“It will take a couple of months to process. They’ll figure out how much disability you’ll receive and probably give you a medical discharge.”
“You’ll officially be in the Army until then.”
“I’m going home.”
“Technically you’ll be AWOL until the board decides on your discharge.”
“I’m sorry, sir. I guess I’ll have to be AWOL. I can’t stay here anymore.”
He gave me a hard look, then looked at my records again.
“Three purple hearts. A Bronze Star. An RTO. You were with the 25th?”
“Yes, 2nd of the 12th, Bravo Company.”
“I was with the 25th as well. Great Division. Look, I can’t really order you to stay. But if you leave you’ll officially be AWOL, and the Army will have to figure out what to do with you when the medical board finishes their review.”
“I’m going home, sir. I can’t do this anymore.”
“I can’t tell you what to do, son. I know your DOD day was today, but you’re still technically in the Army until your papers process.”
I didn’t have to say anything. He knew I was leaving as soon as I walked out the door.
“Okay. We’ll send these on to the medical board.”
“Thank you, sir.”
I saluted. Opened the door and walked out.
I got into my car, drove out the gates of Fort Ord, and headed toward Los Angeles.
I was free.
I no longer belonged to the Army.
It was the best I felt for two years.
rg cantalupo (Ross Canton) was an RTO (Radio Operator) for an infantry company in the 25th Infantry Division, 1968-69. He was awarded three Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star with a Combat V for Valor for courage under fire.