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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.

The Forgotten Soldiers, Black Vets Say They're Ignored / Peter T. Chew. (p. 233-236). (Originally published in The National Observer, March 10, 1973.)

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

Author Peter Chew visited his friend Jerome Johns whom he met in Vietnam in 1966 to find out how he had been doing since his discharge from the army. This article is the result of that reunion. After a series of low paying dead end jobs, Johns had a chance to get a job he wanted with the Urban Rodent and Insect Control Project in East Orange, New Jersey. After taking the civil servants test Johns was ignored by the employers despite his receiving the highest score on the test. His story may have ended up like the countless other African-American veterans who returned home only to find no work, if it were not for the intervention of the mayor of East Orange, William S. Hart, an African-American. If Mayor Hart had not intervened Johns could have ended up like the veterans turned drug dealers that littered his neighborhood. Or perhaps Johns and others like him would have listened to the serenades of the black power movement and resorted to violence, a skill he was trained ("programmed" says Johns) to do.


[From The National Observer, March 10, 1973]

The Forgotten Soldiers, Black Vets Say They're Ignored

(By Peter T. Chew)

"The man must be insane!" yelled my friend Jerome Johns the other morning while watching the 7 o'clock news. Johns is a 35-year-old black veteran of Vietnam with shrapnel scars in his right leg, a onetime career sergeant with the crack First Brigade of the 101st Airborne. Within seconds the flickering screen had informed him that the Nixon Administration planned to cut benefits to disabled Vietnam veterans (a plan since rescinded) and send billions of dollars to reconstruct Hanoi. Then when those clean-cut POW officers walked briskly across the screen to a hero's welcome Johns snapped off the television set. No one had met Johns at the airport when he came home in August 1966.

We had first met in Phan Rang, South Vietnam, in July 1966 and had kept in touch. Curious about how Johns was making out in the real world, I had come to East Orange at his invitation. It has been a rough go for citizen Jerome Johns, and the meager statistics on unemployment among black Vietnam veterans indicate that his experience is fairly typical.

A Frustrating Readjustment

The years since 1969, when Johns left the Army, have been frustrating for this vital, virile man who led his men through fire fights at Ben Cat, the Michelin rubber plantation, and other hot spots. He tells of the ritual 45-minute waits on the hard, shiny benches of the local Veterans Administration (VA) offices "while we pull your file, Mr. Johns"; of hours of employment counseling; "What skills did you acquire in Vietnam, Mr. Johns?" – besides how to kill, of course; of filling out complicated forms in unemployment centers; of test-taking for employment; of a course in drafting ("I've always loved to draw") that led to one job offer of $75 a week; of a course in black studies at a local college, for something to do; of a succession of marginal jobs; insurance salesman at $125 a week plus commission, only to find that daily expenses averaged $15 and that few blacks can buy expensive policies; of a tour as a correctional officer at a local jail, where he was injured in a riot.

There were jobs he coveted but failed to get. Having led both blacks and whites in combat, the idea of being a foreman in a trucking company appealed, and he took the test, "I know I passed that test, but I also know that company wasn't ready to have a black dude bossing around a bunch of tough white truck drivers."

Last year Johns took a civil-service examination for the $11,000 post as chief of the Urban Rodent and Insect Control Project in East Orange, a city of 70,000 persons bordering Newark. Johns reasoned that if he could kill North Vietnamese and Viet Cong he could kill rats. Though he made the highest score on the exam, he says, he asserts that he got the bureaucratic run-around for three months. William S. Hart, the black mayor of East Orange, confirms that it was only through his intervention that Johns was finally given the job that was his by law.

Johns loves his work. He has staff, status, and "infestation" statistics to prove that his search-and-destroy operations against rodents – many of which slip into East Orange from neighboring Newark slums – are making real progress.

But now Jerome Johns' world is about to come apart again. Funds for the rat-control program originate in the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, filtering down through a bewildering maze of state and regional offices. These funds are beginning to dry up as the Nixon Administration goes about dismantling antipoverty programs, many of which were born out of riots in Newark and elsewhere a few years back.

Johns and his wife and 16-year-old daughter live in a three-story frame house on a pleasant, tree-lined street in East Orange, renting out rooms to help pay the freight. Johns has earned the respect of Mayor Hart, and it's reasonable to assume that if the rat program goes down the drain, the mayor – a World War II veteran and outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War – will find a place for Johns in his administration.

How does Johns feel about all this?

For one thing, Johns is not bitter about the Army, or about Vietnam. "The people I killed in Vietnam, I've forgotten about them." He says that he was a neighborhood tough when he joined the Army at age 18 to avoid going going to work in the tobacco fields around La Plata, Md., and that the Army made a man of him.

"They Taught Me Discipline"

"All our instructors were Korea vets. I was scared of them. If I messed up they would knock the tar out of me. But that's why I'm alive today: They taught me discipline."

When we met in Phan Rang, Johns was running a rugged five-day indoctrination course for new arrivals from the States. Most of them reflected shockingly inadequate training. He'd shake his head and say: "The kids just aren't getting motivated today, even in places like [Fort] Benning. Something is missing somewhere along the line."

Johns and the other instructors knocked the tar out of those who messed up, but most of them returned after combat to thank the instructors for saving their lives.

When they arrived in Phan Rang, replacements for the First Brigade of the 101st were little more than terribly scared kids – poor white and black teen-agers from the cities, scooped up in the draft net. On patrol, and later in his combat-indoctrination course. Johns got to know these teenagers well. And he's more worried about how they have fared in civilian life than about what's going to happen to him.

Johns believes "it's a reality" that young black veterans, and possibly some whites, are going to turn violent if society doesn't do more for them. "Whenever I see something about a killing in the paper, I look to see if it was done by a Vietnam veteran," says Johns. "You remember how we had to motivate those kids to kill; we programed them to kill, man. You heard me when I told them the sooner they killed, the sooner they were going back home to the good life.

"Well, nobody's unprograming them. That's why the Mark Essexes are blowing people away. And hell, he was just in the Navy! He had to teach himself all those things. (Essex was killed by police atop a New Orleans hotel from whose roof he purportedly opened fire, killing 6 persons and wounding 15, in January.)

"Look, let's be frank: Calley wasn't the only one in Vietnam who went through villages and killed men, women, children, and cows. This is the kind of thing I'm talking about."

Impersonal Agencies

When Johns talks about "unprograming" veterans he doesn't mean sending them to psychiatrists. He means finding them good jobs. "If a man can drive a 10-ton truck in Vietnam, he can sure as hell drive one from Newark to Trenton," he says.

Johns believes that the VA, the Labor Department, and other agencies dealing with veterans are too big, too impersonal. It's his dream to form a local-level veterans'-affairs office in East Orange. He believes in putting political pressure on companies to hire veterans and on congressmen to pass veterans' legislation.

We walked down Newark's Broome Street near the towering Essex County Jail, where Johns says many a black Vietnam veteran can be found. It's a depressing region of urban blight. Broken glass and trash litter vacant lots.

We were looking for some Vietnam veterans who were either pushing or using narcotics. We found one in the first five minutes; a tall, handsome black Air Force veteran in his early 20s. He had been sniffling heroin, and he pressed a blue Kleenex to his sore, running nose. Agitated and nervous, he cursed when we asked him about his job-hunting problems. Then he hurried off with two other young blacks.

A Message To White America

They were on their way to a candy store. "They need that sweet to keep their high," said a middle-aged black man lounging nearby; a Korean War veteran, as it turned out.

We were told that narcotics were sold openly in some local schools. And during the day we saw at least half a dozen Lincoln Continentals and Cadillacs cruising the neighborhoods with young blacks driving. "When you see a 'nigger' driving one of those things in these neighborhoods, you're looking at a pusher," says Johns with a smile. "I could have taken that road."

Johns feels that when he came home he tried to do things according to "the system." But he feels that the system let him down and that, except for a black politician, he'd still be filling out forms in some would-be employer's anteroom.

"Because I went, Mr. and Mrs. Middle-Class White America, your son didn't have to go. Now you won't give me a job," he says for himself and other black veterans.

The Urban League's Lewis C. Olive, Jr., a West Point graduate who heads his organization's veterans' program, figuratively nods his head when told of Johns' experiences and outlook on life. "Veteran after veteran has publicly told committees of state legislatures that he will rip off people if he can't find decent work. These people aren't joking."

Benefit Review Poorly Timed

The Urban League's program has found nearly 12,000 jobs for Vietnam veterans since its inauguration in 1967, but it badly needs funding.

One VA official, still embarrassed about the "timing" of the announcement that veterans' benefits were under review just as the POWs were coming home, says: "I'm not going to try to shoot down Johns' story."

The Bureau of Labor Statistics says its admittedly small sample indicates that things are looking up for the black veteran. His unemployment rate dropped to 8.2 per cent in 1972's fourth quarter from 14.5 per cent in the third quarter. The "all-races" unemployment rates for veterans were 6.6 per cent in the third quarter, 5.6 per cent in the fourth.

If you talk about statistics to Johns, you'd better duck.

A few years ago, Ebony magazine said movingly in an issue devoted to black history that the black man has had to fight even for the right to die in the service of this country in all its wars.

"A hostage to fate and a warrior against fate, the black soldier has fought for some 300 years on the front lines of ambiguity," Ebony said. "Never sure of the real identity of his enemy, or the precise location of his battlefield, never completely accepted by his comrades in arms or his white neighbors at home, the black soldier has willingly and repeatedly offered himself as witness to the truths America refuses to recognize in war or peace."

It was Frederick Douglass, the great Nineteenth Century black editor, who said:

Once let the black man get up on his person the brass letters "U.S." Let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder, and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States.
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