Once a Newby Always a Newby

by Sergeant Major (Ret) George S. Kulas

As we were leaving the plane, the stewardess announced that she hoped we had a good tour—not a good day, as is usually the custom. I recall thinking to myself that I probably wouldn’t have a good day, or see another pretty blonde like her, for the next 13 months.

As I departed the air-conditioned plane the heat and humidity outside was stifling, like walking into a steam bath. It was March 27, 1967, and I had arrived at Da Nang Air Base, South Vietnam. I was a young and green Marine private first class.

Our group of new arrivals hadn’t even reached the terminal when we heard, “Here come some more newbys.” Other comments directed at us were, “Man, are they green,”, “29 days and a wake-up,” and “My replacement is here.” I thought, “How long will it take to get rid of the label ‘newby’? A week? A month?”

Finally, after a few days of processing we were sent to our respective Marine units. Pvt. Jennings and I were sent to the 3rd Marine Division at Phu Bai.

Sergeant Major Fairchild, the senior enlisted soldier in the battalion, promptly put us to work replacing sandbags around the communications center. After about a week of sweating in the 100-degree heat and 95 percent humidity the job was nearly finished and Fairchild seemed very satisfied with our work.

He also told us our security clearances had been granted; when the project was complete we would be reporting to duty as communications operators. The next morning we reported to our work site to put the finishing touches on our project. As the site we encountered Sergeant Major Fairchild with a grim look on his face.

He told us the colonel did not like the walls, especially the way the sandbags looked. Many of the sandbags were filled inside out, leaving a ragged appearance to the colonel, who demanded they be replaced. Jennings and I knew we had filled many bags inside out. We believed they would provide just as much protection.

Many of the inside-out bags were spread throughout the protective walls, requiring that Jennings and I virtually tear the walls down to fix the problem. We vocally expressed our dissatisfaction with each bag we emptied and refilled.

Several long days later we finally completed our task. But our fellow Marines constantly ribbed us about our farcical escapade. “Typical newbys” they proclaimed.

“Once a Marine, always a Marine” is an expression used often by marines and ex-Marines. Another term often used to define Marines who seem to do everything wrong is “once a shitbird, always a shitbird.” This was how other Marines in the unit were describing Jennings and me.

I was determined to get rid of this description. For the next several weeks I busted my butt. I was finally gaining the respect of my superiors and peers. So I thought.

Early one morning after getting to sleep at 0300 hours I was awakened around 0500 hours by voices I soon recognized as those of Sergeant Major Fairchild and the First Sergeant. The voices were getting closer, and I heard Sergeant Major Fairchild say, “Kulas and Jennings are the newest members of the unit, and they’ll adjust the easiest.” I was thinking, “Adjust to what?” A few minutes later I was packing my bags, reassigned to the communications center at Dong Ha, the northernmost base in South Vietnam. I wasn’t looking forward to going to the DMZ.

When we arrived at Dong Ha we were met by a corporal who took us to see the gunnery sergeant. The gunney told us where to put our gear, to get settled in, get some chow and report for work at 2200 hours. Explaining that we had just a couple hours of sleep the night before I pleaded with the gunney to let us get some sleep, since it was now already 2100 hours.

The gunney, after talking with the captain, stated that Jennings would now go to the day shift, and I would still report at 2200, no questions asked.

During the shift I was being trained in the handling of messages and distributing them to the addressees within the 3rd Marine Division. But there weren’t any messages coming in; I was very sleepy and began to doze off. Suddenly I was jolted awake by the gunney slamming his fist on my desk. He glared at me with his bulging eyes saying, “Marine, wake up.” I did—for a few minutes.

But the need for sleep kept taking priority over the boredom of no messages and I dosed off again and again only to be caught each time by the gunney, who was getting very upset with me. During one of my napping periods I was awakened by the deafening sound of shooo-boom, shooo-boom, shooo-boom! Marines were yelling, “Incoming,” and diving for the deck. I dove with them, shaking and scared.

Finally, the firing stopped and we went back to work. Several minutes later the roar of boom, boom, boom was heard. I screamed, “Incoming” and dove for the deck. After flopping down, I became curious why I hadn’t heard my fellow Marines yelling and diving for cover. Peeping up, I saw the gunney standing over me and the other Marines staring at me in disbelief. With the booming sounds still thundering I yelled, “Get down incoming.” The gunney bellowed, “Get up, Marine. Outgoing!”

It took months to work my way off the gunney’s informal shitbird list. All the while I had that newby feeling. Just when I was gaining the respect and confidence of the gunney and my fellow Marines I would screw something up, in my mind seeing the gunney writing my name back on his list.

The gunney finally completed his tour and went back to the States. I had 10 months in Vietnam and decided to voluntarily extend my 13-month tour for six more months. I did this for many reasons, but I think in the back of my mind I wanted to start over with a clean slate.

I started feeling good about myself. I hadn’t screwed up under a new gunney. I was promoted and was working in a supervisory position. A few months later I took my extension leave and returned ready to continue doing well.

The night I returned to Vietnam from my leave I immediately went to the hooch to sleep. My gear had been put in storage before I left on leave, so I didn’t have an area to bunk down. I sacked out in another Marines’s area. The Marines returning from their shift awakened me. That’s when the fact I was no longer a newby and a shitbird in the minds of my fellow Marines struck home.

A Marine who had arrived after I had departed on leave bellowed out, “There’s a newby sleeping in my area.” Another Marine who recognized me said, “That’s not a newby, that’s an old-timer back for his extended tour; leave him alone!” I was now a veteran.

Five months later I left Vietnam for good; it was Dec 6, 1968. I was being assigned to the communications center at Camp Courtney, Okinawa. The majority of Marines there had not yet been to Vietnam. I felt I would have it made there; being a veteran of Nam I wouldn’t have to take anything from my colleagues. As I arrived at the in-processing station in Okinawa, I told the sergeant I was reporting in from Nam. The sergeant turned to a private near him and said, “Process this newby, he just got in.”