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Returning Veteran Attitudes

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"Minority Veterans." In Source Material on the Vietnam Era Veteran. Congress. Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, 173-236. Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1974. Committee Print 26.

Part 3: Minority Veterans.

I'm Going to Make It; I've Got To! / Richard Armstrong. (p. 193-201). (Originally published in The Saturday Evening Post, May 4, 1968.)

SuDoc No.: Y4.V64/4:V67/6

In this article the author determined that the direction a returning African-American veteran took was primarily based on whether or not the veteran could "make it." To "make it" meant to find employment once back in the United States.

The author had spent time in Vietnam observing men in combat and now sought out returned veterans to assess their level of adjustment into civilian life and their success at "making it." Personal anecdotes from veterans who leaned towards either violence or responsible leadership are presented. The author closes by saying that, "the dominant mood was hope," but that this "hope is turning into bitterness."


[From The Saturday Evening Post, May 4, 1968]

I'm Going To Make It; I've Got To!

(By Richard Armstrong)

"When I got on the bus there at Travis Air Force Base, headed downtown for San Francisco, I had my discharge papers in my pocket and I had twelve hundred dollars in savings. It felt good, man. We got to the gate at Travis and right outside was this big sign flashing Go-Go Girls! We started yelling, 'Stop the bus, man! Stop the bus!' And he did, and we all piled out, duffle bags and all. I mean, you can always catch another bus. There it was, all laid out. Topless go-go, right outside the gate."

Ronald Harmon was talking in the Blue Moon Bar on White Plains Road in the Bronx. Ten months had passed since he burst through the gates of Travis, and he was dead broke and unemployed. His last employer, R. Altman's, a big New York department store, had laid him off two days before Christmas. His mother was in a hospital at the time with pneumonia, brought on by holding down two jobs in an attempt to keep her family together. "It was like getting hit on the head," said Harmon, brooding over his drink, a slender and rather dapper man in a shirt of red velour. "You come home thinking the world is going to open right up for you. And you find out you've still got to work twice as hard as Whitey, just to stay alive."

There will be more than 40,000 of them this year. In growing numbers, the Negro soldier is coming home from the jungles and cities of Vietnam to an unsettling, uncertain future. He is a quite special man, this veteran, capable of greatly enriching the American society to which he returns, or of ripping it to shreds. He has been conditioned by a war of brutality and caprice, a war in which a sniper's bullet or a mine might kill a buddy a few yards away, but leave him untouched.

He has been exposed for the first time in his life to total integration, imposed by both Army discipline and the demands of combat. Indeed, he has been immersed in it, for within the tight, closed fraternity of a combat unit, color simply drops away. "The only color in the jungle," the veterans say, "is green." The cruel divider in combat is not color but courage and skill at arms.

Almost all of the veterans hold a high-school diploma, since they come from the elite 30 percent of their race who can pass the qualifying exams for Army service. Most of them have had technical training of one sort or another during their hitches. Many have commanded white soldiers in battle. "After a tough fight," say a Negro paratrooper, "I have seen white boys from the South throw their arms around a Negro noncom, hugging him and kissing him."

The militant Black Power groups know about this veteran and his importance. These groups, which denounce the U.S. role in Vietnam as "genocide," are calling on the veteran to enlist his combat skills in a worldwide revolution of colored peoples against their white "oppressors." On the other hand, Negro moderates like Whitney Young of the National Urban League look hopefully, almost wistfully, to the returning veteran for the new and constructive leadership that the Negro community badly needs.

During a long tour of Vietnam, I had seen these splendid troops in combat. On a cross-country trip, I sought them out again and found them – back in the ghettos from which the nation had plucked them for its defense. Out of dozens of lengthy interviews, some basic patterns emerged.

The veterans themselves are at this point overwhelmingly concerned about their own personal futures. Their attitudes within the Negro movement will probably turn on whether or not they "make it," a phrase that constantly recurs in their conversations. They are rather poised young men, but filled with bitterly mixed emotions. They can be smoothly buttoned down in a personnel office for a job interview, and then full of brooding violence if rejected.

Like most young Americans, the Negro veterans are deeply attached to clothes, cars, color TV, all the appurtenances of success. Some of the veterans see these rewards at the end of a difficult passage that begins with college under the GI bill. Most talk about somehow getting the good things here and now. "It is those sixty-dollar-a-week jobs that grind you down," says Ronald Harmon. "I have pushed my share of those clothes carts in the garment district. I want something better now."

For many Negro veterans, California is the place to go "when I make my play." James Price, 26, who fought for a year with the tank battalion of the 25th Division in the jungles of War Zone C, is slight and intense, a talented amateur at photography. When he got his Army discharge, he made his move from Akron to Los Angeles – where he is cleaning toilets on the night shift at the City Hall Annex and going to school all day.

The annex is a big square building at First and Main. By day it is a busy, bustling place; by night is fluorescent and silent, except for the footsteps and mops of Price and the rest of his clean-up brigade. Between 5 p.m. and 1 a.m., Price cleans 15 places. "It is all coded, automated, you see, by these tags on my cart." He leaned a mop taller than himself against a toilet wall. "I give them all a good going-over every night, work over the toilet bowls with bleach here, and work over the mirrors there, all according to the tags. I can give you a regular guided tour. This is the men's room and the Civil Service Commission." His voice rose up the scale of anger, and he threw a dirty, wet rag into his cleaning cart. "Is this any job for a man? Is this any job for a man?"

Later Price explained why he had made his move to Los Angeles. "I don't know if you know Akron. It is a small town, a rubber town. You can walk right downtown in twenty minutes. I was a part of the Brownleigh Court gang, from the neighborhood where I lived. It was not what you think of as a gang – that was our own name for ourselves. The worst we ever managed was to bust up a few streetlights. I went to Akron Central High, but it was this big place that looked like a detention home, that's how I always thought about it, someplace to get out of. So my grades weren't good.

"When I got back home to Akron from Vietnam, it was like, you know, everybody had forgotten I was alive. They said, 'Oh, it's you.' I was down, man, way down, so I came out here bag and baggage and moved in with my dad. He's got a job driving a truck. We're having some good times here, times we never got a chance to have when I was a kid."

Like many or perhaps even a majority of the Negro veterans. Price comes from a broken home. He was raised by his mother. "I used to put my old man down, but I can see how he had his problems. In hard times, it is the man that gets thrown out of work. The woman can always get some sort of a job. It will break a man's heart. It's the system, not the man.

"Is 'Go West' a good plan? Well, I will tell you, if you've got a case of the smarts, this place will knock it out of you. I still feel lost. It's so big and it's wide. In Akron I know who you can trust. Out here you can't trust nobody, they're all of them hustling. Now I am making four hundred twenty a month, but it slips away, twenty here and twenty there. As for girls, the game is too high and the money too long. In Akron there were these soft chicks you grew up with. Here they are hard. If you talk marriage, yes, but there go all your plans out the window. Another road is hustling for them, and I'm not never going to get in that bag. I'm not never going to pimp for a woman.

"I'm going to hang in there with the work and the school. This chick I was out with the other night said, 'Money, money, money, that's all you think about,' and I said, 'That's all there is.'"

The Negro veteran headed for college is a promising, and badly needed, young man. But his problems would defeat all but the most determined. Since his high-school training was usually poor, like Price's, he must often do remedial work even to get in. The GI bill pays only $130 a month for a single man. Just enough to cover tuition in most cases, and the Negro's family is in no position to subsidize his education. He must usually hold down a fulltime job in addition to his demanding academic work. Price is attending refresher courses in English, math and economics at an adult training center in Los Angeles. He is hoping to enter Trade Technical College this fall to study accounting or data processing if he can pass the entrance exams.

"I'm losing weight because I'm running so hard all the time," says Price. "I never have time for a righteous meal. I'm always tired. I work from five p.m. to one a.m., and I go to school from nine-thirty till three-thirty. The classes bend me just about out of my mind. You are tired and you doze off for a minute, and you're an hour behind. You miss one week of class and it takes you a month to catch up. It puts you down on yourself. There are the white man's exams and you've got to pass them, get across a barrier.

"Now my teacher is this nice white chick, Mrs. Betty Peek, and I sometimes imagine her trying to run a crap game with ten side bets going and the odds changing with every roll. That is a math exam I could handle without even thinking, and she would flunk. But you've got to play the white man's game – so many apples and oranges, and interest at six percent per annum. But going back to school was one of the few good moves I ever made.

"What am I aiming for? I'm going to set me behind a big desk and push me some buttons somewhere."

Many Negro veterans of Vietnam are finding within the Army itself the sort of status and authority that Price is seeking. Their reenlistment rate is three times that of the whites. The Negroes are becoming and elite guard, the shock troops and centurions of a society they could not breach as civilians. They are paying for it in blood, volunteering for the most dangerous units and most hazardous jobs. Although only 11 percent of the troops in Vietnam are Negro, they have taken 14 percent of the combat death toll. "If you have been called 'boy' all your life," one Negro paratrooper explains, "you want to prove that you're a man."

An Air Force veteran, Cpl. Algernon Trimble of Harlem, makes another point. "When you hit E-6 [Staff Sergeant] you have really got it made, and these guys eat it up like walnuts. They just tell the E-5's what to do. Where else would a Negro get to boss white boys around? If he is married, where else could he make enough money to keep his family together?"

A splendid example of this new professional soldier is Elija Fields, 29, of Quincy, Fla. He is modest in speech and unobtrusively flawless in the cut and press of his uniform as an E-7 [Platoon Sergeant] in the 101st Airborne. At Fort Campbell, Ky., where he runs the combat firing range, he is as well known as a starlet on a movie lot or a vice president on Madison Avenue. Over his breast pocket Fields wears the modest blue, red and white ribbon of the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation's highest decoration after the Medal of Honor. On February 8, 1967, Fields crawled into Vietcong machine-gun fire and, although hit twice himself, pulled a badly wounded man to safety.

Fields happens to be a teetotaler, but in 1958, while on a visit to Quincy, Fla., he was arrested for drunken driving. "I couldn't make up my mind whether to stay in the Army or get out," he recalls. "I went home to see my folks, driving a car with New York plates. I drove my mother to the supermarket one day, and when I came out there was this policeman taking down my tag number. I came up to him and said, 'What's the problem?' He said, 'We've got reports on you, boy. We're going to put a stripe on your license for reckless driving.' I said, 'What reports?' and he got mad. He said, 'Don't get wise with me, boy. I'm going to lock you up.' I asked what the charge was, and he said, 'We'll have something on you by the morning.' He threw me in jail and charged me with drunken driving – and I don't even drink. The only reason he jumped me were those New York plates. Anyway, that was what decided me to make the service a career.

"I'm staying in for the twenty years, and I'll probably do thirty," Fields says. "Do we stay in because we're afraid to face the world outside? There might have been some truth in that, for me, in 1958. Not now. The services are still far ahead of the world outside in integration. But the world outside is changing. They have a white teacher where I went to school in Quincy. The schools are integrated, and a white policeman wouldn't blink an eye at a Negro driving a car with New York plates.

"I believe in Black Power if it means more economic and political power for the Negro, that if I were arrested again and fought the charge, there would be a Negro on the jury. Black Power is like an infantry tactic that can be used well or poorly.

"I'm staying in because it's a good job, and I like it and do it well." Fields lives in a neat, brick, three-bedroom duplex on post and drives a 1966 blue Ford Galaxie. The family shops at the PX at bargain prices. Rent is free, and Fields takes home $463 a month. "Security for my family is part of it, of course – it is for any Negro. I do hope to be able to send my two children to college. But I'm not a killer for hire. I wouldn't be in if I did not believe in this country."

The man who now calls himself G. Weusi believes in another country entirely – a worldwide community of colored people whose fascist oppressor, he thinks, is the very country he fought for in Vietnam. He lives in the Watts area of southern Los Angeles, and he speaks from a deep well of racial hatred. He dresses in African tunics of brilliant hue; there is an African totem on a black chain around his neck. He spends most of his time training Watts Negroes in the Army skills he learned in Vietnam, beginning with close-order drill. "Like the Boy Scouts," he explains with an unpleasant smile.

"What do we want? Black revolution in this country, the sooner the better. The revolts in the cities were a start – they were something we've been needing for four hundred and fifty years. They were a cleansing force, a fresh wind. Whitey thought he had us programmed like a computer. We were the best asset he ever had, better than a diamond mine in South Africa.

"Now Whitey is scared," Weusi declares. "Non-violence? The white boy doesn't respect nonviolence. Power cannot be granted, it must be taken.

"Do I carry a gun? That's none of your business."

Weusi, 22, grew up in Pasadena as George Armstrong, which he now calls his "slave name." He is light-skinned, five-feet-nine and heavily muscled. He shaves his head every morning and wears a thin line of beard across his upper lip and down under his chin. He is warm and friendly by nature and so must constantly catch himself up around whites, his jaw muscles tightening.

"Pasadena was a deceptive place to grow up in," Weusi explained at the All-Nations Pool Hall on South Broadway in Los Angeles. He dug into a luncheon of the Southern cooking that is known in Black Nationalist circles these days as "soul food" – in this case fried fish and collard greens. "Pasadena was a town that was integrated, or so people like to say, and all it did was make me hate myself. It made me ache and hunger to be something and somebody I could never be, which is white. When you rub shoulders with Whitey in a town like Pasadena, you are in one way or another being called nigger every day.

"High school was a nothing. I didn't know why I was there, what it was all about. I dropped out and joined the Army, and that was the worst. When Whitey gets you in a controlled situation like that, he can make you know you're a nigger every minute, every day. I got off the bus at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. I had done my basic, won my stripes, and there I was for advanced infantry school. Three of us started to get into a taxi. The first two were white. The driver stopped me and shut the door on the two white boys already inside. 'You can get another taxi down that way,' he told me. 'I don't take niggers in my cab.' And there I stood on the curb, uniform and all, and watched him drive away.

"That was my patriotic period, I call it, when I believed in America and all that. In Vietnam I was in the combat engineers clearing an area about Cam Ranh Bay. There were two bars in town, and one of them had a sign in front, NO NIGAS ALLOWED. That was to please the white boy, but he didn't respect the Vietnamese. He called them gooks and yellow niggers. The white boy talks about racism just as naturally as he breathes. We had some Hawaiians in our outfit, and Whitey called them pineapples. I never heard that one before, did you? And my black brothers at home were being shot down in the streets."

Back home in Pasadena, after his discharge, Weusi worked the bedpan brigade as a hospital orderly, stood in unemployment lines and "hustled" – a broad term covering activities at the outer fringe of the law. He underwent what amounted to a religious conversion during a Sunday "soul session" in Watts at the temple of US, a militant Black Nationalist group which recently pulled half the Negro children of Los Angeles out of school to celebrate "Kuzaliwa" (Swahili for birthday), the birthday of the movement's maximum hero, Malcolm X.

They are a gun-carrying crowd led by a deceptively mild-mannered mulatto intellectual named Maulana Ron Karenga, who dropped out of graduate studies at U.C.L.A., where he was compiling a new Swahili-English dictionary, to fund US. Fearing assassination like Malcolm X, he is accompanied everywhere by bodyguards. The secret handshake and the code phrase of US ("All praise to Maulana Karenga, the Great Elephant, the Black Panther") struck me as a bit like old Negro Masonic Lodgism brought up to date, Kingfisher revisited.

"You still don't understand," said Weusi. "I don't care what you think. Go away and send us technicians and foreign aid. You owe us reparations for four hundred and fifty years of slave labor. We are going to make a black nation within this nation, peacefully or, as Malcolm said, with 'whatever means available.'"

Oddly enough, by embracing this extremist doctrine, Weusi won an advantage over most of his fellow veterans. So terrified is Los Angeles County of another Watts that it appointed him as an aide in the Community Relations Bureau of the sheriff's office. Weusi is supposed to do what he can to prevent another riot, but he has not stopped proclaiming his doctrines.

He began one of his daily rounds with a fiery explanation to a Negro mechanic of the origin of vigilantes. "When the law didn't work for the white man, he organized the vigilantes in the West. That is what we need right here."

Outside the police station in downtown Watts, he began haranguing a white deputy sheriff on his constitutional duties. "Why do you go after black men with your club and your gun? Why tell us to move on, break it up, when you don't do that kind of thing in the white part of town?" Blood began to well up in the deputy's freckled neck, and a crowd began gathering. Weusi broke it off at that point and walked away.

Later, when I reminded Weusi that many whites had worked for civil rights, he replied, "I'm not concerned about the honkies, the white devils. I'm concerned about all the blacks who died on the slave passage to this country and the millions flogged, shot and lynched once they got here. I'm fighting for them. My future is the revolution."

The black revolution tugs strongly at the emotions of the Negro veterans. Army Cpl. Charles Turner of Los Angeles was a rioter himself at Watts. "I was right in the middle of it," he says proudly. "I don't really know why. I got drafted right after that, and so did a lot of my buddies. I guess somebody figured that it was the one way to keep us off the streets." Turner wound up in Vietnam, where as point man on an infantry patrol he stepped on a mine and was riddled with shrapnel. Permanently deafened in the left ear, he was sent to the Army hospital at Ford Ord, Calif. "I don't agree with everything that happened in Watts," he explained to me, "but they were my people and I felt a strong urge to stand up and be counted."

Very few, however, care to dedicate their lives to Weusi's sort of revolution. "These brothers in US are telling where we stand," said James Price as he cleaned his round of toilets. "But a riot is not a program. I have the feeling that the movement is going out of its righteous mind trying to find unity and a program."

There is a general feeling among Negro veterans that the right leadership has not yet emerged to give them some hope. "The frightening thing is that my family began scrambling up the ladder two generations ago," said Ron Harmon in the Blue Moon Bar in the Bronx. "But when a Negro makes it into the middle class, he is still only hanging on by his nails. My granddaddy opened a little store in the colored part of Houston, and that made the money to send my dad to Howard University. He's a CPA. I'll show you where I grew up. It's just around the corner."

The handsome, two-story house of dark-red brick was in a white neighborhood. "We moved here from central Harlem and it seemed like, well, paradise. Six bedrooms. My mother worked, and we took in boarders to keep the place floating. The money was alway short. My parents fought about it and two years ago my dad split. We lost the place, and now we are in a tarpaper house, terrified about the rent.

"I joined the Air Force because they promised to teach me a trade. You know what they made me? A cook, like generations of my people, stretching so far back you can't even count them. There I was at Tan Son Nhut Airbase in Saigon, the temperature in the kitchen one hundred and twenty. I was working a twelve-hour shift, poking food in the oven and dishing it up for Whitey.

"I told you about that good feeling I'd had, at the gate at Travis, go-go girls and twelve hundred dollars in my pocket. I bought some things I wanted, like a slide projector, and I lay around the house for three months and the money just slipped away. I took a job in a White Tower hamburger joint, but it was right between two bars, and I couldn't take the drunks that came in every night. One of them waved a gun in my face and I quit."

Harmon had two big hopes. He went up for a promising job as a trainee with the telephone company. "This white guy in front of me had been in Vietnam too, and the white girl taking the application gave him a big smile and commented on the medals he had listed on the form. She didn't even notice mine, even though they were exactly the same. The job never come through."

While working as a stock clerk at Altman's he boned up at night school in Harlem to pass an exam for the steamfitters' union. The teamfitters, notoriously laggard on integration, like many other unions, had decided to give Negroes an equal shot at 50 new places. "Did you know steamfitters make seven dollars and eighty cents an hour? Now that's real money. You could begin to live on that. But I just knew when I sat down to the exam that I wasn't going to make it. There was this white guy, a big shot in the union, giving the big handshake to some of the white boys taking the tests. They were probably blood kin of people already in the union." As he had predicted, Ron Harmon failed.

Now Harmon was on the bleak platform of the Dyer Avenue elevated station, where the subway trains emerge from underground and run clattering through hillsides of Bronx tenements. "We're spending billions in space, and I'm down here hustling," he said. It was 4 a.m. and Harmon was waiting for a train to take him to his newest job – as a cook at New York University Medical Center.

"Well, the Air Force promised to teach me a trade. They did, and it's the only kind of work I can get. Screwy as it sounds, I sometimes think about going back in the service. If I could get the right kind of deal I would go back over there.

"Go to college? I honestly don't think I have the aptitude. I'm the slow one in my family. So why waste someone else's time? And, the unemployment bread is very, very small. And they rub your nose in it, ask you a lot of questions, make you feel like a crumb. I'd rather cook eggs than take that kind of crap from Whitey."

The Negro veteran did not come home in anger, or aflame for crusade. He came home puzzled and disturbed about the riots in the ghettos. "We wondered what it meant," says Harlem's Corporal Trimble, "the brothers burning down the stores and houses, their own places where they lived." But the dominant mood was hope, bolstered by a comfortable packet of Army severance pay and savings from overseas.

That hope is turning into bitterness. A door slams in his face, and the veteran sees he has reverted from hero abroad almost all the way back to his old status as society's dropout at home. The help being offered is minimal: a parsimonious GI bill; a small bonus on civil-service exams, leading some to a safe unexciting future in the postal service. The Urban League has opened a counseling service in nine major cities. "The problem," says the director of the Los Angeles office, "is that there just aren't enough good jobs to go around."

Out of bitterness – and the return to an America of de facto segregation – Black Nationalist feeling is growing. But the concept of "Brother" has its positive as well as its virulent side, both at work within the veteran. The most heartening evidence so far is that, at whatever emotional cost to himself, the veteran is "hanging in there," as James Price put it. He has not yet lost hope.

"You know, when I was working at Altman's, as a stock clerk," said Ron Harmon, "they had this great topcoat in the men's department, black cashmere with a Persian-lamb collar. I would walk by it and just stroke the lapels. And all the things you see on color TV, the cars and all the rest. You lie in bed at night and think about them, and think, 'What if fortune should touch me?' You wouldn't be human if you didn't."

"When I came home to Harlem," says Corporal Trimble, "there were all those guys I grew up with, doing the same thing they were doing when we were teen-agers – playing ball, just goofing off. They might not have moved an inch the whole time I was gone. I don't mean to put myself over them, but I think I learned some things in the service. I put on the old sneakers and shorts and tossed the ball around with them, but it didn't seem the same. I told myself, I'm going to make it out of here. I've got to."

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