Monday, January 21, 2019

First OCS Grads Visit Fort Belvoir After 50 Years


This plaque at Franklin and Goethals roads stands as a reminder of the U. S. Army Engineer's Officer Candidate School, which had a large presence on Fort Belvoir from 1965 to 1971.
Photo by Paul Lara

In the fall of 1969, the military draft was in full swing, and a handful of draftees were notified during AIT that they qualified for Army Officer Candidate School, which, to some, seemed a better proposition than shipping out to Vietnam as an Infantryman right after boot camp.

The first OCS class of that year on Fort Belvoir was known as Echo Company, U.S. Army Engineer Officer Candidate School Class 1-69. First platoon members struggled with the adversity they faced – the long hours, the incredible class loads, and even the deprivation.

The 1969 OCS graduates returned to Fort Belvoir last week to remember. On Saturday, 15 of the original 27 members toured the post, but recognized little, as the Engineer barracks no longer exist on Belvoir.

However, the group’s grounding moment came when their tour bus drove past The Eagle’s Nest Mess Hall. “Once they saw that, they were able to orient where the barracks used to be and the rest of the layout,” said Frank Gallagher, reunion coordinator.

The old, consolidated mess also brought back memories of what a refuge it was, according to Gallagher.

“Going through AIT, you get told you’re going to do KP (kitchen patrol). But, when we got to OCS, we were all willing to do KP, so we’d get to eat some food,” says Nils Nillson, a class graduate now living in Ohio. “They literally would not feed you for the first 10 weeks.”

Nillson remembers the incredible challenges and, looming over them, the prospect of graduation or washing out and going straight to Rifleman duty on patrols in Vietnam.
“The first 10 weeks was brutal, and that’s what it was all about,” said Nillson. “If you wanted to do it, you would do it. If you didn’t want to do it, then you gave up and left, and that separates a lot of people.”

Attrition was high. With 65 officer candidates reporting for school, by graduation day, Friday the 13th of December, there were just 27 remaining. This 50th reunion brought 15 members back together, to share laughs and remember the hard days that bonded them. While most of them did tours in Vietnam, only one was wounded in combat, something they feel fortunate about.

John Meigs said the experience turned these Soldiers into leaders, with a life-long connection. “We came together without knowing each other, and we bonded together, as brothers, and that bond has continued all of these years,” he said.

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