Edgar Welty Jr.
U.S. Army – Specialist Five
24th Engineer group, 15th Engineer Brigade
Cold War (1976 – 1980)
Edgar Welty Jr. is a minister in the United Church of Christ, a Reformed Denomination and served two Lutheran parishes as a pastor. This experience is reflected by his belief that every Christian has a duty to help solve world issues, whether it be through military service or other means. Welty believes that serving in the military is something that every citizen should be required to do. In his novel Thanks: Giving and Receiving Gratitude for America’s Troops , Welty highlights that even in the worst of cases, serving helps promote worldly awareness and proves commitment to one’s family, friends and country.He believes that all veterans should be honored and regarded as people who have put extra positive effort forward to serve their country. In our interview together, h e stated, “For troops and veterans, yes, I believe we are called on to walk a mile or two. As a veteran, I confess I’d sure like to be thanked that way.” Additionally mirroring Welty’s opinion in regard to the veterans returning from Vietnam, Uwe SiemanNetto states in the foreword of the novel, “Yes, there were dysfunctional units like the platoon led by Lt. William Calley that slaughtered unarmed civilians in My Lai, but such units are not representative of the mass of American military men in Vietnam.” Shortly thereafter he quotes famous Christian reformer Martin Luther in stating, “That is the fault of the persons, not of the office.”
Rev. Edgar Shirley Welty, Jr. was born in La Mesa, California on October 3rd, 1950. He grew up all over San Diego County. His family finally settled down in El Cajon during his high school and college years. Rev. Welty’s father had many different jobs; he was in the local newspaper publishing business, a substitute school teacher, a pastor, a taxi driver, and he eventually left home to establish a missionary school in Tijuana, Mexico. His mother was a county employee. Initially she was in the county clerk’s office and then the recorder’s office, continually moving up ranks in the civil service. Rev. Welty’s family also had a variety of military experiences that provided him the extra motivation to join. His father was in World War II in the Navy. One of his brother-in- laws was in the Army before him and another brother-in-law was in the Navy. He has a cousin who was in the Army, in Korea, and another cousin who was in the Marine Corps. Prior to entering the military, Rev. Welty had a Bachelor of Arts in Russian area studies. He worked in the bookstore, and in the cafeteria while attending college and he was a ballroom dance teacher out of college.
Rev. Welty joined the Army, as he stated, “because, at 26, my mother … and my sister thought I wasn’t growing up, so they thought it would be a good shock treatment to get me going in my life. And it was.” Deciding what branch to choose wasn’t a tough choice for Rev. Welty as he recalls choosing the Army because, as he said himself, “I was interested in architecture, and I wanted to learn the basic language of architecture, which is drafting. And I was then going to get the G.I. Bill, and go to architectural school, but I ended up going to the School of International Relations instead.”
When joining the military, Rev. Welty remembers, “Well, my little nephew, who was six years old, and he questioned me, and he goes, ‘Edgar, why do you want to join the Army? Do you want to kill people?’ And I tried to persuade him that that’s not what I was going to be doing; but later on, and you’ll find it in my book, in the chapter called ‘My Basic Job,’ you rehearse – There’s – there’s many jobs in the military. Most of them don’t involve killing. But your basic job is to go out and kill or be killed. I mean that’s just the way service is. I’m not trying to knock it. It’s just the way the military is.”
Rev. Welty was first sent to the training battalion at Fort Dix for basic training, eventually being transferred to the Defense Mapping School at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, where he took a course in construction drafts, and went in as a PFC (Private First Class). He was automatically promoted to a Spec. 4 (Specialist Four) because of his education. Rev. Welty became class leader in individual training, and was assigned, after individual training, to headquarters of what was then called the 24th Engineer Group; however, it was redesignated as the 18th Engineer Brigade. There he worked with the design officer, and was in charge of draftsmen and he wrote some [bills] of materials and specifications for construction.
Rev. Welty received basic training at Fort Dix. Basic training typically lasted six to seven weeks and soldiers trained seven days a week for the first month of it and got the weekends off for the last couple of weeks. During these last few weekends soldiers got their regular clothes back so they didn’t have to walk around town in uniform. At basic training at Fort Dix, Rev. Welty hurt his back when he went up the cargo nets 36 feet in the air and fell off. This unfortunate occurrence permanently labeled him as a disabled veteran. Because of this injury he was recycled and spent an additional six weeks navigating basic. When describing his experience, Rev. Welty stated, “The idea of basic training is to take strongminded individuals and break them so that they form part of a unit. And, at 26, I was a hardheaded person, and they did a lot of screaming and they did a lot of abuse.” In Rev. Welty’s first basic training unit, there were three men who were washed out, and they had Congressional complaints against the unit for abuse. But, compared to a lot of basic trainings, it wasn’t as abusive as basic could be. Rev. Welty had his own instances of abuse as he found that they typically got at him for trying to con the Army out of money because of his injury and they also didn’t like it that he was a college boy. Rev. Outside of abuse, Rev. Welty was trained in how to use grenades, gas masks and other essential equipment. He certainly was not the best soldier and remembers, “In 16A1, which is you threw a grenade, I…threw the grenade so wimpy that my drill sergeant knocked me down behind a wall and laid on top of me so the blast didn’t get me. I only threw it about 6 feet. It’s a good way to kill yourself.” During basic training Rev. Welty found that he may have not been the perfect soldier mentally as he had the mind to question some of the methods that the Army used to accomplish tasks. He stated, “I went to Philadelphia, and I was thinking about getting out, because I having some conscientious-objector-type feelings, and the chaplain didn’t take that very seriously. But, in terms of trying to make sure that I was qualified on a weapon, and – and that I got in shape, they took it very seriously. They were – they were pretty hardnosed about what they wanted accomplished, and they made sure that you did accomplish it.” Rev. Welty believes his basic training was very thorough in everything basic, but he knows that if you were going into combat, you would need to go to infantry school. As far as entertainment was concerned, there wasn’t any. Rev. Welty describes basic training in a nutshell, Oh, there wasn’t any entertainment, you know. You just did the stuff. It was 24/7 the first month. The food was basically good enough. When you went out to the field, there was a hole in the ground with a…seat on top of it, and canvas around it, which served as a toilet. If you wanted to bathe? For two or three days, you really didn’t bathe. You’d wash your hands before meals. That was about it. And then, when you got back from the field, you rushed for the showers, because you felt grimy. Food was – Sometimes it was cold C rations. Sometimes it was heated in the field. Back on the training post, the mess hall was…good enough, but they rushed us, so you couldn’t really enjoy your food. But you weren’t – You were constantly kept agitated so they could be working on molding you. I mean that was the idea.” After basic training, Rev. Welty was sent to advanced individual training: construction drafting at the Defense Mapping School. This training lasted 12 weeks. Rev. Welty’s training as a draftsman wasn’t anything like what he ended up doing. He ended up doing pencil and tracing paper, handlettering, Leroy lettering, and ink lettering. He remembers that the guys in his unit were so good at it, they never got very good at drafting. In addition to his drafting training, once he got on post in Germany, there was training in biological, chemical, and nuclear warfare. There was also training in the snow learning how to wear winter gear, there was training to keep up proficiency with a rifle and once a year he was exposed to tear gas to make sure that everybody was putting on their masks correctly. They would also be lectured on a yearly basis on how fierce the Soviets and the rest of the Warsaw Pact were meaning that Rev. Welty and the rests of the U. S. soldiers better be on guard or they would be invaded and overwhelmed. At this point Rev. Welty was part of 81 Bravo, which is construction drafting. However, he didn’t do much drafting; he mainly wrote specifications and [bills] of materials. I supervised draftsmen who were much better on the boards than me. Rev. Welty received a Christmas break leave that he celebrated with family in California before being sent to his first assignment.
Rev. Welty was at the 24th Engineer Group, which was redesignated as the 18th Engineer Brigade. He arrived there in January of ’77, and served most of his military service there. It was a three year term, but he extended it, so it was three and a half years, so that he could get out and stay in Europe. He arrived as a Spec 4 ranking and was promoted to Spec 5. Rev. Welty describes the duties of his first assignment, “I worked – I had a desk in the design officer brigade, and I calculated how many hours, the total cost of all materials, the hours of construction, so that you could figure out the temporary duty leave, the total amount of materials. Multiply that by how much it cost. Come…up with a cost estimate. Wrote specifications under the supervision of the officer, who – who was an engineer, and I wasn’t. Was in charge of details at the barracks, because I had rank. Another guy and I basically took over the bathroom, which, the only way it was going to be cleaned [was] if we did it. So we did it.” At this assignment, Rev. Welty was put on his own, often times without any officers. He had technical manuals, so he usually figured out what to do himself. He had a GT score which showed an intelligence quote of 156 and since he was collegeeducated, he found the manuals pretty easy to read. Because of this, he was kept in Headquarters Company. At the assignment, he was motivated to keep going in his service due to the fact that he signed up for it and he wanted the GI benefits so that he could retrain himself in architecture when it was all set and done. Rev. Welty also communicated with his family in a peculiar fashion. Although he sent letters, he would put audio cassettes and slides in them. He would send a set of 42 slides based on his travels. At headquarters, there was never a shortage of supplies of any sort. This may have been either because there was never a lack of supplies or if there was headquarters would get it first. Nevertheless, Rev. Welty is unsure. It’s interesting to note that during his service, they didn’t even consider computers; everything was typewritten and Xeroxed.
The overall mission of the 24th Engineer Group was vague, but they found out what they were supposed to do: go to the airfields and, using quicksetting concrete, repair bomb craters in the airfields. This was because one of the areas where NATO had a tactical advantage over the Warsaw Pact was in air power. So the 24th Engineer Group was responsible for maintaining the airfields in Europe. Additionally, some of the battalions were responsible for bridging the Rhine. They were responsible, during peacetime, for doing a variety of construction projects. They wrote the specs, and did [bills] of materials for things like a dental clinic, a kennel, an underground testing range for a machine gun on the tank, roads of different sorts, a remodel of a room for a nursery and a canteen for the German workers, where they could drink beer. A total of about $3 or $4 million worth of construction spanning between 12 and 15 different projects were completed of this sort Rev. Welty recalls while he was in commission.
At this assignment Rev. Welty was excited to be in Europe. During his time as a Spec 4 he shared a room with a few other guys, but when he was promoted, he received a room of his own. Rev. Welty was at times shocked by his fellow personnel. He describes his situation, “I came from a sheltered family. I was a minister’s son, and I went to – college educated. I wasn’t used to lower-middle class people that had foul language all the time. There was a certain – not in our unit, but there was a certain anger between – between Blacks and Whites (or blacks and whites) that I hadn’t experienced, because I hadn’t been around masses of Blacks and Whites that might want to fight each other. We averted a fight narrowly. There was almost a race riot in our barracks, and there were definitely race riots in the battalions below us.” Rev. Welty thought that most of the officers above him were well placed and seemed to know what they were doing; however, he recalls, “The commanding officer of Headquarters Company, which was a lieutenant, I had a low opinion of. He basically seduced one of the female soldiers. He didn’t get in trouble for it, but she got thrown out of the military. I…thought that was grossly unfair.” Rev. Welty remembers for entertainment opportunities that he had while at the assignment. “I did a little bit of traveling. Went down to Berchtesgaden. Went to the opera house. Went to a rock concert, I remember. Went to the Schloss. Went to a place called the Bistro, which was a pizza slash – pizza place/bar run by a French – Frenchman. And drank, probably, more beer than I should have. Went down to the bistro and I’d come back walking, singing songs about killing Saxons.” Rev. Welty also found it necessary to cope with his experience at this assignment; he was not real happy. Sometimes, he remembers playing an exercise game in which he would run eight laps totaling two miles. He would pretend that each lap represented six months meaning that he was completing his service. Welty was happy to be in Europe. He describes, “So one of the things that I would do, to cope is I would go – I would get off post and go to the local art museum. We even went to a Wagnerian opera in uniform, and the unif – the Germans take Wagner very seriously. They sit at attention. It was Die Walküre (Valkyrie). (Hums ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ or ‘Walkürenritt’) And they had a good local opera house. I probably drank too much beer, mein Bier, dein Bier, unser Bier, moniker Bier. But I made a fool of myself by throwing up in a restaurant, and I decided that that was the end of that, and I quit cold turkey. I didn’t have the addictive personality. A lot of guys were getting washed out of the military because of overuse of alcohol.”
All in all, Rev. Welty felt there was a kind of fatalism about the situation he was in. He stated, “The Warsaw Pact, on a conventional-force basis, outnumbered the NATO. And the whole sense was that if the Warsaw Pact ever got their act together, and decided they were going to invade, that we would have to use tactical nuclear weapons. And, once it went nuclear, everybody was dead.” To add to this feeling, he remembers, “And there were weird things going on. The Air Force didn’t want us to come on their bases, because they wanted their own corps of engineers, so they were sabotaging our mission.” Rev. Welty does recall; however, that despite this feeling, most people worked hard at doing a good job for what they were supposed to do. This he believes has led to this assignment being successful as now both Berlin, and Germany as whole, are reunited.
After his first, and really only permanent assignment, Rev. Welty was an inactive reserve in Europe. He earned the good conduct medal and National Defense medal. After many years removed from service, Rev. Welty tries to keep in touch with his unit, but finds it difficult and hasn’t heard back from anyone in 20 years. During this time the U.S. had a major impact on Germany. According to Rev. Welty, “about 16 percent of West Germany’s budget was based upon American spending on the military there. We had a pretty big footprint over there. There were 100 bases just around Frankfurt. Some of them (the Germans) were a little sick of us being around, but most of them appreciated it, because there were Soviet troops facing them.” Rev. Welty discusses his release from service. “I was in Karlsruhe, Germany. I’d gotten out. I took terminal leave, which meant the last 30 days of my service were actually spent as a civilian in the City of Frankfurt. It’s 130 kilometers away. And I was taking courses in international relations there, and I was working in the PX selling cameras. And I let my hair grow long, and I came back, and they threatened to make me cut it off before I could be released, but I resisted that, and collected my last check, and went back, spent another 10 months in Germany, and then went on a military airlift to San Diego.”
Upon his arrival home, Rev. Welty was received neutrally by fellow Americans. He recalls some residue from Vietnam, but surely wasn’t called a “baby killer” or anything else along those lines. He was just one of many “guys that had gone in the military and we must be loser… because that was an option that we chose.” Rev. Welty then attended the University of Southern California. He took international relations. He quit after his professors were advocating for nuclear war, knowing that his professors were nuts for thinking this. He proceeded to go to seminary and got a master’s of divinity, and reentered working with the military. He belongs to a veterans’ service organization and has the rank of Captain in that organization doing military funerals. Rev. Welty recalls his post service career and general activities, “I tried to be…an auditor for the IRS, and that didn’t work, because I’m dyslectic. Then I got a job running a bookstore for a law school. I did that for 10 years and became very active in church and became an elder of – a lay speaker, and that led to seminary. And I went up here to seminary, and then I was – I left the Presbyterian Church to join the United Church of Christ, and was called to upstate New York for a short – for a couple of years in a suburban congregation, and then spent a few months in a rural church, and then came down here. Spent about 7 years part-time as a Lutheran pastor in Tiburon. I worked with the developmentally-disabled now, and I write books. I’ve got about four of ‘em.”
Rev. Welty’s unit does not have reunions that he knows of. He believes this is due to the fact that the unit moved on from Karlsruhe to Heidelberg. However, Rev. Welty is a life member of the Disabled American Veterans, a member of the Scottish-American Military Society and a member of Vets to Vets. He also works with VFW and American Legion at the military funerals he does.
At the conclusion of our interview, Rev. Welty reflected on how uninvolved the majority of America is with the military. “Our whole system, and our place in the world, is dependent upon men and women in organized units going out and…encountering other men and women in organized units and playing a game of killing. And you don’t realize that, and you don’t feel it in your bones, until you’ve actually served. So I believe that we ought to reinstate the draft. There ought to be exceptions for it. You could serve in the Peace Corps instead of the military. That sort of thing. Some kind of [obligatory] service to the military because only 1 percent of the population is now involved with the military, and the other 99 percent have no clue. And they send people off to war without any clue on the fact that the men are going to come back and women are going to come back without limbs and screwed up in the head.” In his final reflections Rev. Welty stated that people should, “Get a broadest perspective on things. Listen to the news. Know how you fit in, in the entire spectrum of humanity. Don’t be prejudiced and thinking that America is always right. Because we aren’t. There are different perspectives in the world. We’re a nation [with] a lot that we’ve got to be proud of; but sometimes we’re wrong. I believe in the saying, ‘My country, right or wrong. When she’s right, I will defend her. When she’s wrong, I’ll correct her,’ which is the full quote.”
Interview By Jacob Bruner on November 11th, 2015