It was exactly the same, yet totally different.
The key landmarks from then-Sgt. Thomas Zielinski’s tenure at U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground (YPG) were still mostly present, though occasionally with different uses and cosmetic changes.
The hotel and fitness center weren’t here then, but the theater and school were, and the street they lived on is still called Hardy, even if it has new houses on it. Today, the former post headquarters is YPG’s Heritage Center, and former Sgt. Thomas Zielinski, accompanied by wife Joan and their friend from YPG days Mary Donnelly, recently visited the post, getting special tours of the Heritage Center and YPG’s police station.
“This has really been an incredible experience,” he said. “Many people don’t appreciate how important this is. I’m proud of it.”
When Zielinski first reported for duty at Yuma Proving Ground in the late spring of 1969, nearly half a million of his countrymen were fighting half a world away in Vietnam as a deeply polarized American public watched the war on television.
“When I came here, I was told point blank, ‘in three months you’re going to Vietnam,’” said Zielinski. “So, every month we’d wait for the levy from Washington. The hardest part about it was the waiting and anxiety: that year we lost 6,000 or 7,000 people, and the year before that we had 16,000 or 17,000 casualties.”
Shortly after he arrived, Joan gave birth to their eldest son at what was then called Parkview Baptist Hospital in Yuma, and was hospitalized with complications for several days.
“I was awaiting orders, I had a wife and child, and was unsure of what was going to happen day to day,” he said.
It was conscription that had made Zielinski, a South Bend, Ind. native recently graduated from Indiana State University with an accounting degree, a Soldier. He was sent to basic training at Fort Bragg, which was a culture shock in terms of its sheer size, but not for its military discipline.
“I was raised by Catholic nuns and a policeman father, so I was ready for the discipline,” he said with a laugh.
He completed basic training and was assigned his military occupation specialty.
“I called my dad and told him I was going to be a 95-Bravo, and he said ‘what’s that?’ I told him, ‘military policeman,’ and there was silence. My dad didn’t want me to be a policeman, and growing up with a policeman I understand why he didn’t want me to be one.”
He felt like an unlikely candidate for service as a military policeman, but at YPG found that many of his colleagues were in similar circumstances.
“One of the guys I was stationed with had a PhD in history, and they made him an MP,” he said.
Another MP, Daniel Donnelly, was a teacher who, along with wife Mary, would become lifelong friends with the Zielinskis.
“He was on duty one day and he and his partner in the truck got a call on somebody in a conflict carrying a rifle,” Zielinski recalled. “Dan’s first comment was, ‘you’d better call the police!’”
Yet such calls were rare at YPG. Zielinski recalls his primary duties as patrolling downrange and monitoring Imperial Dam Road for speeders. The YPG MP shop had 15 to 20 men on duty at a given time, and as each month passed without Zielinski or Donnelly getting deployed to Vietnam, the friendly couples settled in to life at a small, relatively informal Army post with an important mission. Joan got a job in the post nursery, and Mary, recently graduated as a registered nurse, worked at Parkview Baptist Hospital.
“I learned obstetrics here,” she said. “The doctors took you under their wing and showed you what was acceptable.”
After duty hours, Tom moonlighted as a bartender in the officer’s club. Never paid much, the young couples strived to survive on their $100 a month in BAQ and food money they received.
“We all had little red clickers with white knobs and we’d go to the store and make sure we didn’t go over $25 a week,” said Joan. “Even our older son remembers the little red clickers.”
As a treat, sometimes the young couples splurged for dinner at longtime Yuma icon Chretin’s, still the best Mexican restaurant they have ever eaten at.
“We palled around with other people in the same situation and fed off each other,” said Joan. “We had a good time.”
When his enlistment was up in 1971, Tom and Joan returned to Indiana. They had another son, and Tom worked for various companies as an accountant and chief financial officer. Retired now, he wanted to visit YPG again and have a sense of closure from the hard feelings many former Soldiers experienced from their civilian fellow citizens in the tail end of the Vietnam era.
“In retrospect, it was a real education,” he said of his time in uniform. “I think meeting so many people of different backgrounds—different educations, different cultures, different races—was probably one of the biggest things I got out of the service.”