Photo of USTDC courtesy of Les Duffin

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Gambling

Recreational gambling (or gaming, as the industry prefers to call it today) has long been a part of military tradition. I don't know if anyone can say for sure when it began, but we do know that Roman soldiers cast lots to see who would get the robe of Jesus. It's probably safe to say that they weren't the first military gamblers.

When I was stationed at Kadena Air Base on Okinawa from 1963 to 1964, the on-base clubs all had slot machines, which was typical of most overseas bases. Domestic military clubs also had the machines at one time, but they were removed sometime in the early 1950s.

After a series of high profile scandals involving the skimming of funds from the one-arm bandits in Southeast Asia, both the Army and the Air Force removed all of their overseas machines. The Navy and Marines, on the other hand, kept all of theirs in place, including those in Taipei. In 1980, long after I returned home from Taipei, the Army and Air Force overseas clubs once again installed slot machines at most of their locations, which is still the case today.

The profits from these machines, which is approximately the same percentage as those in Las Vegas, goes to pay for other recreational facilities, such as golf courses and campgrounds for military personnel.

In my experience, most military people either don't gamble at all or do so on such a small scale that it doesn't impact their lives in any significant way. However, there are always those who are more prone to addictive behavior, whether it's gambling, alcohol, drugs or something else. While most of us were content to flush a couple of dollars down a slot machine at the club after lunch, the gambling addict could never do that.

The one case that I'll never forget was that of a married Air Force guy who routinely gambled his paycheck away every month. It was said that his children used to ask neighbors for food because there was never enough in their house. Local merchants who extended him credit rarely got any of it back.

His primary addiction was slot machines, though he used to drop by the stag bar at the 63 Club during the brief period when the regulars were shooting craps. I saw one Army guy refuse to accept his bet at the table because he knew what the situation was and didn't want to be a part of making it any worse. It didn't really matter though because this guy always found some way to gamble his money away.

When it finally came time for him and his family to return to the States, he requested three months advance pay. When asked why he needed that much money, he said that it was to pay off all of his bills on Taiwan. His commander reluctantly approved it with the understanding that he would leave the island debt-free. He was told that he was not to leave Taiwan until that was the case.

A day or two after his scheduled flight home, I learned that he was seen playing the slots in the West Compound. To make a long story short, he had put his family on the plane to Seattle (with no money) while he remained in Taipei. When later asked why, he said that he was only doing what he was ordered to do -- not leave the island until he was debt free. It turned out that nobody got paid because he gambled away most of the three months advance pay he had received a couple of weeks earlier.

I debated for a long time whether or not to write about this case. I eventually decided that, as tragic as it was, it was still a part of my experiences there and should be included. I purposely omitted a lot of detail, for obvious reasons. I have often wondered if the guy ever got his life back together. I hope so.

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