There was never any doubt in Albert Shelton’s mind about whether he would become a soldier for his country. After all, seven of his brothers had already served before him.
Shelton had looked forward to entering the military since he was a small child living on Fredericks Hall Road. His parents, Jordan and Bertha, couldn’t afford to send the boys to college. His older brothers helped support the family with their military income.
Nothing his siblings told him could prepare Shelton for the reality of the United States Army’s basic training when he volunteered in 1977 at the age of 19.
“I remember being on the plane flying out of Richmond, saying to myself, ‘Wow, what have I gotten myself into?’” Shelton recalled. “They took us into a big gym and had us stand in a circle with a big tub in the middle, and they told us to throw all our contraband — any knives, drugs, that sort of thing — in it. Everybody there was a teenager, and scared.
“Then you get your uniform, and the training starts. The drill sergeant is up in your face, nose to nose, screaming. We slept in wooden barracks that were cold at night and hot during the day. You’d go on a forced march and bivouac for about a week. You’d have to go stand out in the rain. Then you had the night fire, bombs going off. It’s a simulation of war, but in your mind it’s really going on.”
One of Shelton’s fellow trainees at Fort Jackson, in Columbia, South Carolina, didn’t make it past the second week. The young man’s mind “snapped” under the pressure, Shelton remembers.
“You see things you never thought you would see,” he said. “I’ve never been in a war zone, but I was trained to kill people — that’s just the nature of the beast. They train you so you can survive. If they can’t break you, they can’t use you.”
Sam Lewis, Shelton’s oldest brother, was the first to enter the military when he volunteered in the 1950s. He served two tours of active duty in Vietnam. Four more boys, George, John, Timothy and Wilson, were drafted during the 1960s. The youngest of the eight — Ray, Albert and Larry — were vol unteers. Larry saw active duty in the Bosnian war in the 1990s and in Iraq.
Wilson experienced combat in Vietnam between 1969 and 1970. Of all the siblings, Wilson was the most affected by the experience of war, at least initially.
“When Wilson came home, we really didn’t know what to do with him,” Shelton said. “[But] after being home for a certain length of time, he was able to deal with not being in the military.”
Shelton does not like to talk about the trauma he felt in basic training and after he returned home. But he doesn’t hesitate to give it a name — post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Pretty much anybody who’s been in the military has a disability, physical and mental,” he said. “Every one of us has PTSD. It never leaves you.”
Shelton and his brother, Larry, go frequently to the Disabled American Veterans chapter in Chesterfield to spend time with fellow vets. The younger veterans tell him they have little trouble today receiving medical treatment for PTSD. Doctors are quick to recognize the condition.
“Back then, they knew, too, but they were kind of hiding it, I believe,” Shelton said. “They taught you how to kill and how to survive, but they didn’t de-program you. People thought it was just something made up, that it was all in your mind.”
When he completed his training and became a member of the Army Reserves, Shelton experienced a different kind of hardship when he tried to blend into the civilian workforce. Members of the Reserves at that time served each year for one weekend per month and one two-week period. Otherwise, they stayed home and held regular jobs.
On one occasion, when Shelton tried to return to work after completing his two weeks, he was told he had been laid off. His employer didn’t respect Shelton’s commitment to military service. It was the early 1980s, a few years after the end of the Vietnam War, a conflict that left a bitter taste in many Americans’ mouths. Many former soldiers felt hostility when they returned home.
“I didn’t know I could do anything about it,” Shelton said of his experience. Something similar happened to Wilson when he tried to find work after returning from active service.
“I remember Wilson saying he couldn’t find a job and he was so frustrated about it. They hated him because of that war.”
Still, Shelton said it is no contradiction for him to take great pride in his military service.
This is a partial article. Read the full story and view more photos in the Nov. 8, 2018 edition of The Central Virginian
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