The Army drafted me in late 1967 and, after some unpleasant training near Tacoma, Wash., sent me as a reward to this pleasant, sand-strewn, seaside base. Eventually, I had to leave for Vietnam, but eight months' duty on the Monterey peninsula went well, particularly after I used a ruse to leave my assigned barracks and rent a small house with some fellow enlisted men.
Some of us were married, but none had children. Our wives were working and living elsewhere, waiting for this annoying but temporary separation to end. There was a good supply of cheap off-base housing, including our filthy little two-bedroom cottage in Sand City. Vietnam made us uneasy, but we had enough money for life's necessities.
Nearly two decades later, a very different group of soldiers, drawn to military service by choice rather than law, has descended on a much-changed Monterey. Our Sand City hovel and much of the neighborhood lies buried under the widened Rte. 1 highway. Sewage moratoriums and environmental concerns have limited growth and pushed rents in this resort area far into the sky.
Having volunteered for the Army as a career, or at least a job lasting much longer than two years, today's soldiers have little of the boys-away-at-camp attitude that characterized my generation. They arrive here with wives and children, planning for a long haul, and there is almost no place for them.
In congressional debate about MX missiles and bombers and throw-weight and "Star Wars," this chain of private, personal crises in American military life receives little mention, although its impact on U.S. readiness and morale may be just as great. Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.) notes that the government can provide fewer than 50,000 units of housing for the 240,572 active-duty military personnel stationed in California.
The latest military budget, already under siege, would add only 1,226 units, not nearly enough to ease the strain on lower-grade enlisted men netting barely $1,100 a month, including housing allowance.
A tragedy last year threw needed light on the problem. Danny Holley, 13, son of an Army sergeant serving in Korea, hanged himself in apparent distress about his mother's difficulties in obtaining money for food after making her $750 monthly rent payment.
It appeared afterward that the boy misunderstood a situation not nearly as desperate as he thought, but the heartbreaking death drew television cameras and prompted an extra $1 million in federal funds for a 70-family trailer park here.
Such stories are soon forgotten in the heat of geopolitical and fiscal debate on Capitol Hill. Politicians who care about the issue must content themselves with relatively small measures.
Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D-Calif.) has asked that the maximum housing allowance be raised from 85 to 88 percent of personal income and that various moving allowances be increased. Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) has called for a new dental-care plan, a $110 daily allowance for in-transit families' temporary lodging and preference to military spouses for civilian jobs on base.
Fort Ord housing officials are proposing schemes to trade some of the base's unused land for commitments from private developers to build more housing for soldiers. Wilson, who saw such plans work when he was mayor of San Diego, applauds the concept, but it is a new one for the Army and approval may be slow.
In the meantime, it did little good for the mood of soldiers to hear "CBS News" report last month that hundreds of thousands of Pentagon dollars are being used to help renovate housing for generals throughout the country.
In a small office atop one of Fort Ord's wind-swept hills, Lt. Col. Fred Meurer, the engineering and housing director, chips away at the problem with what is available. Long talks with landlords, including promise of Army support for debt collection, have resulted in greater willingness to risk renting apartments to underpaid privates. Informal agreements have cut the usual demand for two months' rent and a security deposit to two month's rent.
While generals and members of Congress argue about billions for military pensions, it does not seem so much. But they do not have the perspective of a young private first class wondering if he has enough cash for groceries until next payday.