"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 Black Veteran: Battle on the Home Front / Hamilton Bims. (p. 215-222).
(Originally published in Ebony, November 1971.)
SuDoc No.: Y4.V64/4:V67/6
This article primarily deals with the effects of less-than-honorable discharges on employment
prospects for African-American veterans. In the words of Barry Wright, leader of the veterans
organization Concerned Veterans from Vietnam, "The more we listened to the guy on the street,
the more we became aware of this discharge situation. It seemed that one out of every four
veterans we talked to had a bad paper discharge and couldn't find work."
The story of Roman Metcalf is presented as a dramatic example of the less-than-desirable effects
of less-than-honorable discharges. Metcalf was worried about his mother's financial status and
was generally stressed out from 14 combat missions. When he requested a leave for recreation, he
was told that he would be put onto a waiting list. The very next day a white soldier requested
and got a recreational leave. Infuriated, Metcalf repeatedly tried to communicate his concerns
with the battalion commander only to be given the run around. Finally, Metcalf was told that he
could talk to the commander on the helicopter loading zone where Metcalf was scheduled to leave
for his 15th combat mission. When he arrived, he was denied access to the commander and was
ordered to board the chopper. A fight ensued and Metcalf ultimately received a "bad
conduct" discharge (the most punitive of the discharges next to "dishonorable").
Upon returning to the United States, Metcalf encountered trouble in finding a job to help
support himself, his mother, wife and child. Unfortunately, as the article notes, this story
was not unique to Roman Metcalf. Less-than-honorable discharges were dispensed with increasing
frequency to those the military considered to be trouble makers. By military standards,
African-Americans who expressed their new self-awareness were often considered to be
radicals and slapped with a less-than-honorable discharge that stayed with them for life.
[From Ebony, November 1971]
The Black Veteran: Battle On The Home Front
(By Hamilton Bims)
A cold, sunless glare from the window bathed the lusterless walls of the tenement-building
kitchen. Dishes left over from the breakfast cluttered the table. The floor needed mopping,
there was ironing to be done, and the baby (left for a moment on the sofa while the man,
procrastinating, lit a cigarette) was wet. An hour or so earlier, as was his custom every
day, he'd accompanied his wife to a nearby bus. Soon he'd return to accompany her back, as
the sidewalks in the neighborhood of their home were dangerous. Meanwhile, there was plenty
to enrich his afternoon. There were the dishes to wash and a supper to be prepared. The
baby needed changing, the dog taken out, and sometime or other before his wife got home,
he'd have to consider what to do about the floor.
The man reluctantly snuffed out the cigarette, sighed tiredly and picked up the phone. The
gesture suggested a reflex action – ritually executed once every day. It suggested,
as well, an insidious depression – the kind of tired depression that overtakes a man
in the face of constant frustration in something he has been trying to do.
Sullenly, he fingered the telephone; then, disappointedly, hung up the receiver. It is
almost noon, he explains half-heartedly, and the employer he has called is probably out
to lunch. Maybe he'll get a chance to call again later. Or possibly tomorrow, if he has
"It's strange," he confesses, "but after a while you sort of get to the point
where you don't really give a damn. I know it sounds crazy, but that's how you feel. My
wife and myself – we even thought about relief. I could never conceive of myself
doing that, because I've always had this kind of pride in myself. But something –
something's got to happen pretty soon. Because I may be proud, but I'm gonna starve."
The case of Roman Metcalf is just one of a pattern one increasingly encounters in statistics
on the veteran. As of the middle part of 1971, some 300,000 of them, age 20 to 29, were
jobless, or 8.1 per cent of their overall number. And the unemployment rate, as distressing
as it sounds, is just one of the many problems which the veteran has to face. GIs, many
with combat experience, in recent months have come back home to soaring inflation, a freeze
on wages, a slight but hurtful long-range dip in effective veterans educational aid and a
latent hostility by many of their friends owing to recent reports of depravity in Viet Nam.
As is, of course, monotonously the pattern, the problems when related to blacks are even
worse. Black GIs in Viet Nam comprise 17 per cent of all combat forces (but only 10 per
cent of total service personnel), yet the proportion of black veterans who can't find jobs
is significantly higher than for veterans at large (when blacks are grouped with disabled
veterans, the proportion of both their numbers unemployed totals 25 per cent of veterans
20 to 24, against 12.4 per cent for veterans in general in the same age group). Black GIs,
like blacks in general, confront special problems in other areas, too, including housing,
schooling and trade union apprenticeships; insurance rates, credit rates and protection
under the law.
But the biggest single dilemma for blacks is the growing frequency with which they have
been returning to their families with other than honorable or "bad paper"
discharges. This recent problem is all the more alarming in that circumstances typically
surrounding such penalties are not usually unrelated to the new black self-awareness.
Barry Wright, one of their leading spokesmen, puts it this way: "The majority of these
cases have followed a pattern. Most can be related to a new way of thinking in which
blacks are asserting themselves as blacks. The black GI is not a nigger anymore –
and it is hard for the military to accept the implications. Officers see it as a threat
to their authority. Their only way of dealing with the problem is to get to the man who
is responsible for the trouble. He's a 'bad example,' in the military mind."
No one can give you a figure on such discharges (which range in severity from the
"general" discharge, relatively mild, to the harshly censurous
"dishonorable" dismissal), but Wright and others have guessed informally that
one out of every four issued by the services has gone to blacks in recent months and years.
Often prisoners will request such papers rather than contemplate weeks, maybe months, in
the stockade – naively believing that getting them changed will simply be a matter
of consulting an attorney (officers reportedly have encouraged this belief). On the
contrary most bad discharges will apply for life. Of an estimated 20,000 bad-paper
discharges for which Wright and others are seeking reconsideration, fewer than a dozen
have been reversed by the military. And few employers make subtle distinctions between
the four types of bad-paper discharges in question: general, undesirable, bad conduct
Were if not for his disciplinary problems (for indeed in spite of the seriousness of the
crisis, it in no way is affecting the majority of black veterans), and the fact that, unlike
most black veterans, he's a former Marine, not a solider or an airman, the angry Afro-ed and
aware young Metcalf might be typical of the black GI back from Viet Nam. He is young (23),
married and a father. He has taken part in countless combat missions (blacks in Viet Nam
have earned 20 Medals of Honor), yet never rose to the rank of corporal (promotions have
continued to be a problem for most blacks). Like the large majority of black GIs, he
enlisted in the military, rather than waiting to be inducted. This was done just shortly
after high school and for reasons which are strikingly common among blacks: the desire to
enlist in in-service training and extend his education through the GI Bill.
Yet like many (though fortunately not the majority) of blacks he has been utterly unsuccessful
in finding permanent employment.
Since leaving the Marine Corps three years ago, Metcalf has earned less than $10,000 despite
living in Chicago where jobs have been available (he worked for a year in management training
when interviewers failed to inquire about his records). His plight was worsened by the biting
inflation which has plagued the economy for the past few years. For a crowded two-room
tenement apartment, he and his wife pay $95. About $25 goes for groceries and sundries,
and another $15 for the wife's transportation. (An additional amount must go for medical
expenses, as Undrea, the Metcalf's two-year-old son, is afflicted with a mysterious
nose-bleeding malady.) Occasionally the Metcalfs make ends meet on the money which Verna,
the wife, can bring home. But far more often they must borrow from their relatives –
or occasionally from friends in the building where they live.
"I'm worse off now than I was when I left," says Metcalf. "And somehow or
other that doesn't seem right. Two whole years in the service – down the drain.
You know, I grew up here on the West Side; I know these streets like the back of my hand.
I've never had any record or anything, and that really makes me feel sort of proud. But
if something doesn't happen, I just don't know. I'd hate to do anything to embarrass my
family. If ever I went into anything wrong, I'd go into it with my eyes wide open. In
desperation, if you know what I mean. And knowing very well what the consequences would
Metcalf's problems started three years ago when his 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Division,
was stationed at Quang Tri, South Viet Nam. "A lot of it," he admits "was
simple immaturity. I was 18 at the time, and fresh out of school, and really didn't have
a mature concept. Prejudice? I really wasn't all that concerned, because I'd never really
had that much involvement with whites. My main problem was just immaturity. I guess the
Marines weren't ready to see me through it, and I really can't say I fault them on that.
But I noticed it was different where the white boys were concerned."
His series of brushes with the military brass is a story that is increasingly encountered
among blacks. He had been worried by accumulating problems at home (his mother was having
some financial difficulties), and after 14 excursions into combat zones was suffering from
a considerable amount of battle fatigue. As was legally his privilege after three months
in Viet Nam, he formally requested a leave for recreation. "They told me that to
qualify for out-country leave – a trip to Hong Kong or some place like that –
I'd first have to ask for an in-country leave, and that three of our men were already
ahead of me. The very next day they okayed a white boy who hadn't been one of the men
on the list. I went to the commander and asked him about it. At one point, I remember,
I called him a liar, and things really seemed to get serious after that."
In the days and weeks which followed that incident, Metcalf noticed other inequities in
the unit. Blacks made up about 25 per cent of the personnel assigned to the company –
yet "for all the months I'd served in Viet Nam I can remember having two black
non-commissioned officers, both staff sergeants. Then the blacks in the company got
their shit details, the kind of details that the whites wouldn't do. My MOS, or the job
I was trained for – it was weapons maintenance. But I never got to do it. Nor did
many other blacks."
He requested an audience with the battalion commander to talk about problems he detected
in the unit. "The first sergeant refused me. 'Metcalf, you're just a troublemaker,'
he said. 'If this had been the old Marines, I'd kill your ass for bringing all this out.'
The careers [career men] feel threatened by, that, and the black non-coms are not a hell
of a lot different. You know how it goes, 'Why in the hell should I screw up my
Metcalf eventually became known as a goof-off while prior to that his record had been
exemplary. "I may not have been the best damn Marine, but I always managed to take
care of my job." Then matters became serious. After waiting for weeks for a talk
with authorities, he was ordered – for at least the 15th time – into combat.
He repeated his request for an audience with the colonel and was told, incredibly, that
the audience would be granted at the helicopter loading zone where the colonel now was.
When Metcalf arrived he was given an ultimatum: get into the chopper on the double –
In the words of Metcalf's court martial transcript, he scuffled momentarily with a
non-commissioned officer and "made as if" he would grab for a rifle. But three
defense witnesses later denied this contention, insisting, on the contrary, that Metcalf
had been assaulted. Whichever was the case, he was placed under arrest, convicted by
court martial and booted out of the service. Metcalf's discharge is classed as "bad
conduct." It is the second most severe of the four less-than-honorable discharges.
For Roman Metcalf, his in-service troubles have had a traceable relationship to his problems
back home. For most black veterans, this hasn't been the case. Most have endured
considerable military bias (though the conviction, widely held, is true that opportunities
for blacks are much greater in the services). But the large majority have returned to their
families with exemplary records – often distinction in the field. This, of course,
has not lessened their problems in Cleveland, Los Angeles, Detroit or Mississippi.
Gen. Frederick Davison, a black brigadier general, expressed it this way in a recent
interview: The black GI regards Viet Nam duty "like putting money in the bank.
You deposit your money by serving honorably... and when you want to withdraw your money
you expect it to be there. A lot of these guys didn't want to come over here" –
but now that they have "they want to take their place, make their contribution and
reap some of the rewards."
Such expectations have usually bee frustrated. But it does not follow (as headlines have
warned) that returning black veterans will turn to crime and revolution. To start with,
the blacks who enlist in the services are not normally the kind easily recruited by
activists – whether from absence of a deeply felt political sensibility or a vague
conformity to "patriotic" values. Such attitudes characterize older GIs
(especially those who are making a career), but even the younger Viet Nam vet is often
noticeably apolitical in his life-style and thinking. As for crime, recent reports have
suggested that black GIs in Viet Nam are considerably more educated and "socially
responsible" than black men taken from the population at large. The average black
serviceman in Viet Nam, it appears, is a paragon of pre-'60s values and motivations –
hardly the sort of person to consider turning against society. He is a high school graduate
who, quite unlike whites, takes full advantage of his educational benefits. Some 53 per
cent will later enter some college (or at least some form of vocational training), compared
with 45 per cent among white returning servicemen. Upon entering or re-entering the
civilian job market, he will earn an average of $4,557, compared with $3,610 among black
men in general.
Such findings suggest that the black GI will be an agent for stability, not for crime
and disruption, at least in the view of most authorities on the question. Says Marshall
C. Miller, a Labor Dept. aide: "If given the opportunity, the young Negro veterans
who are now starting to come back from Viet Nam will be a major constructive influence
in the Negro community at a time when such influence is badly needed. They are returning
from this war with experience in leadership and with attitudes and skills that are most
lacking in the ghettos from which many of them came."
An Army general put it this way: "This war in Viet Nam, bad as it is, may turn out
to be the best thing that ever happened as far as the Negro race is concerned. Over there,
often for the first time, thousands of young Negroes are doing an important job and know
that they are doing it well. They are experiencing what it is like to be treated on an
equal basis with whites. In the process, they are learning the two things that they need
most to get ahead – self-discipline and self-confidence. The Negro veterans of
this war, who soon will be returning to civilian life in large numbers, will produce more
than their share of responsible leaders in civilian life."
Whether, indeed, one accepts such assessments (a $4,557 income, as one example, would
scarcely seem conducive to tranquility after service; and blacks are not treated
"on an equal basis" with whites), it is clear that, however the fact may be
accounted for, the returning black serviceman is not raising any hell. This in the face
of ever-increasing tensions which have been threatening to disrupt the very military system.
Racial conflict has existed in the services since blacks were recruited under Gen. George
Washington. But recent patterns of relatively open confrontation can perhaps be traced to
the early 1960s. The nationwide wave of black self-awareness in no way was restricted to
civilian situations. Its reverberations spread to the services as well, where blacks were
developing greater respect for themselves and asking for concessions that symbolized that
respect: more promotions, equal housing off the bases, the right to develop their cultural
identity through Afro hair styles and the playing of "black" music. The military,
characteristically, overreacted, often tending to regard the new spirit as
"subversive." "It got so bad," recalls on GI, Army Staff Sgt. Samuel
Bates, "that whenever we used the word black instead of Negro, whites thought we were
conspiring on some anti-white project." James McNeil, a former paratrooper, recalls
it this way: "The generals and everybody would ask, 'What's the problem? It's the
same as it's been for 400 years."
Official reaction was all the more appalling in that over racist activity by whites
(display of Confederate flags, for example, and occasional Klan-style burnings of crosses)
was ignored. Such outrages, of course, were least endurable in foreign situations, and
particularly in Viet Nam. "There we were, supposedly fighting for our country,"
recalls Metcalf, "and Whitey, he's spreading all these scandalous lies." The
slanders in question have altered very little since blacks went to Europe in the first
World War and involve what has gotten to be an obsession with whites: the sexual depravity
of the American black man. "Most brothers, to get a girl, don't have to rely on
that," says Metcalf. "But Whitey does it to monopolize a certain part of town."
Such patterns – encountered on Stateside bases and on European posts as well as in South
Viet Nam – have plagued the veteran in civilian life too, combining with a general
suspicion of veterans to create problems that are assuming all the impact of a crisis.
Responding to the challenge, a number of organizations recently have been formed to advocate
the interest of the returning black vet. Probably the largest and most effective of these is
the Concerned Veterans from Viet Nam. Led by Barry Wright, an energetic Chicagoan, the group
was organized in 1968 when Wright, then serving with the Navy Seabees, began organizing black
GIs in South Viet Nam. " It was a last resort," he recollects bitterly.
"Nothing we had tried seemed to do any good. We had begged, we had petitioned, we had
appealed to the Red Cross." Wright eventually returned to Chicago after his normal
tour of duty in the service, but interest in the group had developed so widely that it later
was extended as a veterans organization.
At first it dealt with universal problems: equal housing, benefit counseling, etc. –
activities which still command a good deal of its time. "But the more we listened to
the guy on the street, the more we became aware of this discharge situation. It seemed that
one out of every four veterans we talked to had a badpaper discharge and couldn't find
work." The group is presently accumulating data in hopes of persuading the Senate to
conduct an investigation. It hopes eventually to sue the Defense Dept., forcing the Military
Review Board to at least reconsider some 500 highly questionable less-than-honorable discharges.
Other organizations assist veterans in general. An example of these is the Jobs for Veterans
program. Enacted recently by President Nixon, it serves to publicize the unemployment
problem, stimulating programs for veteran employment through local job fairs and similar
programs. Says National Chairman James F. Oates, a Nixon appointee: "In emphasizing
the need of jobs for veterans, we have underlined the employer's moral obligation. But we
also have stressed the sheer economic advantage of hiring a man with experiences in the
services." Various other programs involved with the problem include the Defense
Department's Project Transition; President Nixon's new PREP program; the Urban League's
new veterans affairs service, the Veterans Administration and many state and local services.
However depressing the statistics, on the other hand (and many of the figures are
conservative estimates), they hardly can reflect the sheer tragedy of the problem as it
is suffered every day by the veteran on the street.
Roman Metcalf is an introspective youth who is sensitive, intelligent and morbidly
perceptive – reflecting, on occasion, an observational power that seems to belie his
mere 23 years. He is a moody man, often given to depression; and as his mother, Mrs.
Ella Metcalf, said recently: "I never saw a change in a person so quick."
"Jimmy" Metcalf was 18 years old when he decided on an impulse to enlist in the
Marine Corps. At the time, the decision seemed a necessary one since a growing number of
financial situations were frustrating his efforts to continue his education. "I was
taking courses at Loop Junior College," he recalls, "working part time and living
at the Y. It soon became evident that I wasn't gonna make it, so one day, without even
telling my folks, I just enlisted in the service and was sent to California."
Months had passed before members of his family became aware of the problems he was having
in Viet Nam. But notes of bitterness did appear in his letters. "I'll know how to
treat Whiteys from now on," he wrote his mother. Then somewhat later he declared in
a letter: "Dear Mom, Today is one of the sorriest of my life! Why – because I
am fighting all these honkies (whites) by myself."
His mother, an aggressive articulate woman, first learned of the court martial in a letter
from her son. She wasted no time. Compiling a list, she sent protest letters to Illinois
Sen. Charles Percy, Congressman Abner Mikva, former New York congressman Adam Clayton Powell
and others, as well as the Chicago Defender and several other newspapers.
"Before Little Brother left," Mrs. Metcalf reminisces, "he was carefree and
sociable, just a different sort of person. He always did so well in school, and never
seemed to have to study for his lessons. Now look the way he is. He's always got this
Metcalf himself has summed it up this way: "I've always had a good deal of pride
with what little I've ever had to feel proud about. In civilian life, everything is in
the open. You know where the man stands. You know what to expect. In the services it's
different, because you can never see it coming. War has a way of taking you back to basics.
If you're prejudiced to start with, it's gonna come out. The pressures of combat are too
great for it not to. I'd never had that much feeling about whites – I'd just never
thought about them one way or the other. But now I think that you could call me prejudiced,
because I've seen so much of this prejudice in them. The brothers are just not gonna
stand for that stuff. Even if they have to suffer the consequences, like I have."
His wife, whom he married after discharge, remarks: "It seems sort of strange to see
a kid going over there. My cousin's got a son in Viet Nam. He's only 18. She's see on
TV where someone got killed and she wouldn't be the same for days afterward. It affects
you. When you get back, you aren't always yourself."
It is possible that with an accumulating number of circumstances (an increasing scrutiny
of the military establishment; growing opposition to a continuation of the draft; the
appointment of a black man, Robert M. Duncan, to the U.S. Military Court of Appeals, etc.),
the plight of the veteran – whatever his discharge – may not indeed be as
gloomy as it seems. But, as serious students of the problem are now suggesting, the plight
of the veterans – black or white – may ultimately defy any simple solutions.
Says Murray Polner, associate history professor at Suffolk Community College in Selden,
N.Y., the problem will require "more than sporadic efforts, more than new VA programs,
more than perhaps most of us can now suggest... But it is something that must be done."
Dr. Charles Levy, sociology lecturer at Harvard Medical School, has called for a possible
"decompression" program to speed and facilitate the serviceman's readjustment.
"This program would be no less ambitious than the one that created the need for it"
– for the servicemen would in effect be "restoring themselves."