A Mixed Reception for Black Soldiers Returning from Gulf War
By: Artelia C. Covington
NNPA National Correspondent
Originally posted 5/20/2003
WASHINGTON (NNPA)—If past war experiences hold true, veterans returning from the war in Iraq will find that while they have courageously served their country abroad they are ill-served by the racism that continues to exist at home.
Frank Stallings, who fought in Vietnam, knows that feeling well.
“I was so frustrated when I returned home to see that race relations hadn’t improved any,” Stallings says. “They had gotten worse and that kind of thing leaves you with a bad taste in your mouth.”
Stallings, who grew up in Baltimore, Md., recalls an incident that left a particularly bad taste in his mouth. The year was 1968 and Stallings, who was drafted into the army at age 19, and some fellow soldiers planned to eat at a restaurant in Hopewell, Va. The group also included two White soldiers, a Mexican and a Puerto Rican. The waitress informed them that she would only serve the two White men and no one else.
“Here I was fresh back from Vietnam and I was still treated no better because I was a Black GI,” Stallings says. “I think that going in a lot of us [veterans] felt like things were going to be different. And when we realized that things wouldn’t be, a lot of us felt used.”
William Sims, founder of the Milwaukee-based National Association of Black Veterans, understands.
“I’m very supportive of the troops, considering the fact that I myself was a Vietnam veteran, so I know that when the troops come back they are going to need understanding and they will have wounds that will need healing,” he says.
Some of the most difficult wounds will be psychological and emotional, according to Stallings, who experienced nightmares from serving in Vietnam.
“My last day of service, I was discharged and sent home. In 26 hours I had gone from being a soldier in the heat of combat to walking into my mother’s front door, I didn’t know how to deal with that,” he says.
Jared Ball, a Gulf War veteran of Operation Desert Storm from Washington, D.C., says that while he never had any psychological after effects from war, he did have to deprogram himself.
“When I came back home, I didn’t know how to respond to my mother and my friends. I was very angry because things just hadn’t changed racially and I just felt helpless,” he says.
For Ball, the military was where he learned just how racist America is.
“The navy was a wake-up call as to what was really going on in this country,” Ball says. “My first week on board the ship, our supervising officer, who was a White man from Georgia, told us that he didn’t like Black people but wouldn’t use his rank to abuse us.”
Ball says he was shocked that none of the other Black officers called the White officer out on his racist remark.
“That was my first week and I was shocked to hear that come out of a supervising officer’s mouth, but it wasn’t the last either,” he says.
Ball says it was common to see Klan lettering on the bathroom walls on the ship and some officers passed out Klan literature as well.
“I also remember a time when they showed the movie, ‘Mississippi Burning,’ on board and a riot almost broke out because one of the soldiers snickered during the lynching scene,” he says.
Ball says that the soldiers who are fighting in Iraq now will receive the same warm welcome he got when he returned home from the gulf.
“This group of soldiers will definitely be received well, with all the television coverage of the war that we have seen and images of wounded soldiers, like Jessica Lynch, being made heroes,” he says. “With Desert Storm there was a clear and defined end and there was a massive exodus of troops returning home. I don’t know if that will be the case here.”
Veterans from the Vietnam era have a different view.
Marion Stringer, a green beret, remembers when he first returned from Vietnam to find that although the signs of racism had been removed from view, the mentality still remained.
“My family owns a funeral home in Clarksdale, Miss., and to come home and to see the local sheriff address my father by his first name—that stung,” Stringer says.
But he says he didn’t feel betrayed.
“I have nothing but respect for my country, and I don’t feel any anger towards my country. If I felt betrayed by anyone it was by certain people who hadn’t bothered to change the way they thought,” Stringer says.
Samuel Mayfield, an Army parachute rigger in Vietnam, shared Stringer’s sentiments.
“I felt like I had served my country in vain, because as soon as we left and came back home, the Vietnamese took over anyway,” says Mayfield, originally from Wise, N.C.
“But I didn’t feel betrayed once I returned back home though. I felt like I did what I was supposed to and I don’t feel bad about serving my country.”
Stringer says that he returned a much stronger person than he was before he left.
“Combat hardens you and makes you speak up,” he says. “You learn to just turn inward and you learn to handle pressures a lot better. Being able to do that helped me deal with what I faced when I came back.”
He added that serving in Vietnam enabled him to take more from the racists he encountered in his hometown. He credits his religious upbringing with also helping him cope.
Stringer says that coming back to the states and not being welcomed also left him hurt.
“I remember going through Travis Air Force base right outside of San Francisco on my way back home and some guy spit on me and screamed that I was a baby killer,” he says. “I didn’t expect anybody to treat me like a hero when I came back, but I didn’t expect to get spit on either.”
Venus Hammack, a 24-year veteran, received all the training she would need before she ever saw Vietnam. The Queens, N.Y., native’s father was a decorated soldier in World War II and had encouraged her to join the armed forces after her dreams of becoming a singer were dashed after a bus accident left her vocal cords damaged.
“He told me that the Army would teach me a skill, so I joined right after my first year at college,” she says.
Hammack joined at a time when there were no opportunities for women in the armed forces.
“Women at that time weren’t allowed to have weapon training and they told us that we wouldn’t even be near battle,” she says.
Black women weren’t chosen for high-ranking offices, most of which went to White men.
“I was placed in a mixed race unit of soldiers when I first went to Vietnam and by this time I was already ranked and they treated us like we were brand-new soldiers,” she says. “They watched our every move and would comment if we came back to quarters later than they thought we should have.”
Unfortunately, race relations haven’t improved much for the soldiers of today.
“I think that when the soldiers get back from fighting they will find that things aren’t really that different, and they will also find that the country they just served will have a very short memory and won’t remember to help them,” Hammack says.
Sims says that while people will embrace this war’s returning soldiers, there are still be some traditions that are hard to break.
“I notice that after every war, more and more Black soldiers complain about the way they have been treated,” says the Milwaukee native. “In Vietnam we were singled out and if we complained, we were labeled as combative. I’m not sure if that is happening today, but the military hasn’t really changed much.”
Ball says that race relations can’t just be improved in the military; they must be improved socially as well.
“There is no realistic way to deal with race while we are all in competition with each other for basic needs, like better jobs, getting home early and things like that,” he says. “Our society is conditioned such that the rich get richer and the poor fight just to survive. We’ve got to address that as a society and then address dealing with race relations.”