Editor’s Note: Thomas Suddes’ regular Monday column will run tomorrow.
We should remember the dead and the living veterans on this Memorial Day.
Black Marine Manny Babbitt did two tours in Vietnam and came home with shrapnel in his skull and PTSD. He was sentenced to death by an all-white jury for murder without evidence of the effect of PTSD on his actions. He was awarded his second Purple Heart in prison by soldiers who saluted him. He could not return their salute because he was chained.
In 1968, the year of the Tet Offensive and Lyndon Johnson’s decision not to run for another term; the year Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated; the year of the police riot at the Democratic Convention in Chicago; the year I graduated from a segregated Florida high school and went to work in an open pit strip mine, I began my education. I worked at the end of a shovel with Black men who had the same hopes and dreams as I did, but not the same opportunities. At Florida State, I unloaded rail cars with a Black man who was a deputy sheriff in a racist county. He was, for me, a tower of strength and insight into race. He still “walks the furrowed fields of my mind.”
As a Second Lieutenant, in 1972, I was a Platoon Leader, Executive Officer and sometimes Company Commander of an Infantry company. The Army had a race problem that was aggravated by Vietnam and three hundred years of history. In 1965, a quarter of all casualties among enlisted men were Black. Many Black soldiers felt they shared a disproportionate cost for the war because they believed the draft was rigged against them. Black soldiers were and still are punished more often and more harshly by military justice. The active Army I served in had been cursed with drugs and hollowed out by the war. In this environment, I learned more about the lives of Black men and their challenges. Their road was harder than mine.
President Harry Truman ordered the armed forces integrated in 1947. This act of political courage was opposed by Southerners and some high-ranking officers in the military. Despite honorable service as active-duty soldiers, several studies have shown that Black veterans received less or no benefits from medical care to G.I. bill benefits, like schooling and home loans.
Today, 20.25% of the Army is Black, 17% is Hispanic, 6.9% is Pacific Islander, 1.6% Native American and 54% is white. A study on the deployments of Black troops in Afghanistan and Iraq found: “It is impossible not to conclude that, even 70 years after segregation was ended in the US Armed Forces, what African Americans experience while serving in the military still differs radically from that of all other Americans who don uniform.” In 2021, an AP investigative report documented widespread racism throughout all the services.
Alabama Senator Tommy Tuberville says we should have a white nationalist army and no attempts to end racism, sexual discrimination, or any form of discrimination in the military. Hide the history. Hide the truth and build an Army that does not look like America.
Racism continues in our armed forces where rebel flags, nooses and the n-word are still used by a new generation of white supremacists. Without attacking racism with the same thoroughness we attack our foreign enemies, this Republic will continue its descent into mediocrity led by racists who claim to be patriots and are, in reality, the enemies of all Americans.
One Black Vietnam Army veteran who finally received benefits after a 40- year fight has said, “When we fought in the military, we were side by side,” he said. “… Our blood is the same color.”
David Madden is a retired trial attorney and a spokesperson for the ACLU. He was an Infantry platoon leader and LTC in the JAG Corps. His book The Constitution and American Racism was published by McFarland Press in 2020.