I was somewhat taken aback when the brother interrupted his shopping to acknowledge my military service. Even though it was Memorial Day weekend, it’s unusual for African Americans to applaud ‘Hue-man’ veterans for their sacrifice. Conversely, it’s commonplace for Whites to ‘salute’ when they see an African American wearing a veteran’s hat or clothing. Obviously, […]
I was somewhat taken aback when the brother interrupted his shopping to acknowledge my military service.
Even though it was Memorial Day weekend, it’s unusual for African Americans to applaud ‘Hue-man’ veterans for their sacrifice.
Conversely, it’s commonplace for Whites to ‘salute’ when they see an African American wearing a veteran’s hat or clothing.
Obviously, they view military service through different prisms worthy of acknowledgment. For Black folks, it’s an entirely different reception, more often than not apathy or, if not, disrepute.
On this weekend, however, this brother provided what happened to be the second consecutive commendation within minutes.
A few minutes before I ventured to the Walmart in Germantown, I was vacuuming out my truck at a nearby carwash, and another younger brother in the next stall walked over to thank me.
In both cases, the brothers were attracted by my Vietnam Veteran’s ball cap, a piece of apparel I often wear when I venture into the suburbs. Whether you understand it or not, my vet hats provide me with a get-out-of-jail-free card.
The carwash brother was an active-duty soldier on leave, he told me, which meant we were part of a unique fraternity.
Membership is for a lifetime, and the dues transcend money or commitment.
Black veterans share a kinship and spiritual connection. The only comparable feeling is what the brothers shared at the Million Man March.
And in truth, the only time I’ve ever felt safe and a true spirit of brotherhood was at the March and in Vietnam.
Not so strangely, that mystical relationship helped me maintain my sanity during my tour in that (then) war-torn southeast Asian country.
I explained that to the second brother, whose gratitude and accolades made me feel a tad bit uncomfortable.
I first noticed the brother as his infant son was waving at me with a big smile that caught my attention. I smiled back at the bright-eyed kid when his father stepped forward from a few feet away.
His chest was full of gold, and a big semi-automatic weapon was strapped to his hip, not the sort I thought would be issuing a commendation.
My first thought was not flattery but concern because I’m from the old school that posits you never expose your weaponry in alien territory.
And displaying a gun, although legal, attracts unnecessary attention, particularly in a suburb.
Moreover, last weekend marked the centennial anniversary of the Wall Street Massacre, which was sparked by an elderly White man who tried to take a rifle from an African American WWI vet who was among a contingency trying to protect a jailed Black youth white terrorists were intent on lynching.
Another reason for my disconnect had to do with a statement the brother made about my ‘saving the American way of life; ensuring Democracy and paving the way for his generation.’
Speaking as much to his young son as me, the brother declared that veterans—like me—protected our country against those who would do us harm. Veterans, he said, were the reason his young son would enjoy the freedoms before him.
The brother was so eloquent in his praise, he all but ignored me as I tried to interrupt. When he finally ran out of breath, he ventured off, his son smiling and waving aggressively. All I could do is respond in kind.
Truth of the matter is, while I am proud of my service to this country, it wasn’t the reason I ‘was enlisted.’
Nor were thoughts of ‘saving democracy or protecting our freedoms’ at the forefront.
Unlike many of my friends and neighbors, I wasn’t drafted. Nor did I volunteer.
My parents ‘enlisted” me two weeks after my 17th birthday because I was ‘feeling my oats,’ as he old school saying goes, and heading down the wrong path.
The military turned me around; in some respects, it was a godsend.
I benefitted immensely from my service, learned a skill, ‘grew up,’ and earned the ‘voucher’ (the G.I. Bill) to attend school.
I gained discipline, structure, and leadership skills.
But it was not a panacea.
I also witnessed racism and bigotry up close and personal. I learned first-hand the dichotomy of being a ‘hyphened’ African American. I also learned how to hate.
Throughout my service, some incidents brought to fruition those contradictions.
My first assignment in Norfolk, VA, was an eye-opener. Even though I participated in Milwaukee’s Open Housing Marches, facing vicious bigots on the other side of Milwaukee’s ‘Mason Dixon Line,’ I was unprepared for southern bigotry, including dogs and riot geared police who didn’t spare the billy clubs.
Jacksonville, Florida, was not better, as my first day there, I was denied admission to a ‘whites only’ public facility because I was African American. And I was in uniform!
As I remember it, none of the racists who stood up when we entered the roller rink did so to thank us for our service.
When I served, the United States of America’s military was not as ‘integrated’ as it is today.
Racial tensions abound. People of color were relegated to service positions. Racists officers and non-coms cast their shadows over lower ranks. Confederate flags adorned lockers, and servicemen were segregated.
I was part of several protests, including one incident that prompted my parents to engage the NAACP when facing court-martial.
Vietnam was the culmination of my experiences. It opened my eyes even further; it made me anew.
While I experienced the most incredible level of brotherhood I had until that point in my life and development, because I was the only brother in my unit, I often found myself grasping my .45 for reasons that had nothing to do with the war.
I once accompanied an officer to an isolated base that was appropriately at the country’s southern tip. And as it turned out, I was the only person of color on the small base.
The first time I went to the mess tent, the White soldiers moved away.
No one talked to me.
Later that day, I went into their makeshift recreation hut. I was greeted by country music booming from the Armed Services Network station and a large Confederate flag on the wall.
I was provided a bunk in the back of the sleeping quarters, which was fine because I actually slept with my gun in my hand just in case one of my American ‘colleagues’ decided to actuate their bigotry.
I honestly believed some sort of accident would happen to me, and I swore to myself I wasn’t going alone.
The saving grace was my running into a Milwaukee brother, Terry Cunningham, when I ventured off the base.
Terry, a Rufus King high school classmate, was my saving grace for several reasons, not the least being I would have ventured too far off base by myself and gotten into trouble had I not run into him.
The concept that we were protecting the world against the spread of communism was nonsensical to most Black Vietnam vets.
The Vietnam War was, in fact, a civil war, a byproduct of French colonialism.
I don’t know if either side in the conflict could justify their criminal acts before the world court. But I would venture to surmise that the North Vietnamese could be adjudicated for far more war crimes than the South.
In fact, I learned later that the losers paid a heavy price for their collaborations with the U.S. after the war. American sympathizers felt the wrath of the victors, as did Amerasians.
Vietnam was an unwinnable war from an American perspective. Most of the deaths—aside from the 60,000 Americans—were people who probably didn’t fully understand what the conflict was about. Or cared.
A lifelong lesson I learned that lit my path in the coming years came midway through my tour. It proved relevant for both the civil rights and political empowerment movements.
It involved a Vietnamese peasant I met while stationed at a base in one of the safer areas of the country.
After ‘chow’ in the mess hall, we were required to scrap off our trays in a garbage bin to not invite rats and other creatures.
From day one, I was horrified to discover a long line of villagers who would line up to get our scraps.
I became acquainted with one to whom I used to sneak food.
He was a poor rice farmer, as were most peasants, who told me in broken English that the scraps of meat we threw away were a blessing to his family.
As he explained it, he was poorer than a poor farmer whose family was lucky if they had meat once a week. Their regular diet was rice and a few vegetables (weeds) they may have grown.
After gaining my confidence, he also told me that he had one son who fought for the North and another who fought for the South. It was a strategic decision rooted in his family’s survival after the war.
The decision to have his sons fight on both sides was rooted in the belief that no matter which side won the war, it would have little impact on his life.
He was a poor farmer barely surviving before the war, and he would be a poor farmer barely surviving after it.
Military service for African Americans is a double-edged sword. Some wars are indeed to protect the American way of life. But others, like Vietnam, are rooted in other agendas, including exploitation or corporate greed.
As such, I can proudly proclaim myself a fraternity member whose members stopped the tsunami of terrorism in WWI and II.
But the truth of the matter is I am also a veteran of Vietnam, which means I also hold membership in the fraternity of Black troops who engaged in disingenuous wars.
In many respects, we shared a page of history with the famed Buffalo soldiers, the renowned 19th-century African American soldiers who paved the way for western expansionism by carrying out the racist agenda of the American government through the removal of the indigenous population—American Indians.
Moreover, serving in the military was a dichotomous situation for Black Americans of my era because we were supposedly fighting for the freedom of others while being denied those same freedoms in our native land.
I returned from Vietnam to the chants of young Whites (anti-Vietnam war protestors) who called us ‘baby killers.’
Days later, I returned home—to the most segregated city in the United States. Back to apartheid, injustice, and oppression.
Maybe a scene from one of the ‘First Blood’ films that starred Sylvester Stallone. His character summed it up best how many of us felt.
In a scene from the film where he’s just rescued MIAs from Vietnam, Stallone’s character is asked what he wants. His response was prophetic:
“What I want is for my country to love me, as much as I love it.”