Vietnam, the worst years of our lives – Part 3

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The Vietnam War had a physical span of 10 years (1965-1975). At the end, U.S. civilians, State Department employees and Vietnamese all fled from the ongoing North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops moving quickly towards Saigon, which they renamed Ho Chi Minh City.

President Gerald Ford stepped up with much courage and leadership when he did what none of the other previous two presidents would do. We got out of Vietnam. Suddenly, the madness was over – or so we thought.

Thousands of casualties
There are 58,220 names on our Vietnam Memorial wall. This is a small portion of the mental and physical damage done to American veterans because of this conflict. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, mental agony, drug addiction, widows, widowers and orphans caused by this ill-gotten conflict are perhaps too many to count.

A lot of it is based on the racial animus which plagued our society at the time. One big reason for this was the discriminatory process used by our Selective Service System at the time. The “draft,” as it was called, was anything but a level playing field.

The vast number of Vietnam-era veterans who served were not there because of equal opportunity. Many were there because of their economic status, educational level, and race.

Up until the time that all draft deferments would become very limited, many draftees were from meager means, lacked political influence, and were racially discriminated against.

On the lookout
A common deferment at the time was the student deferment. If you were a full-time student in college, you could be exempt from being drafted. Local Selective Service boards would be on the lookout for students who would pause in their college matriculation. When detected, a former student would be notified of his new eligibility and get drafted immediately.

One blazing example of this was my first cousin, George McConnell. George had it going on. He was a fantastic basketball small forward who played at prestigious Washington High School in Los Angeles.

It was going so great! My cousin got a full scholarship to play for UCLA’s legendary coach, John Wooden. Shortly after George started matriculating, he and a few others were pulled over by campus police and were charged with marijuana possession.

A life destroyed
Coach Wooden was known for his non-tolerance. George lost his scholarship. Almost instantly, George was now in the Army. The change and shock was too much for him.

While at Fort Polk, La., he was disciplined and eventually court-martialed. None of us knew what was going on until one day George was seen walking down a road near my Aunt Estelle’s home outside of Shreveport, La., wearing only slacks and a short sleeve shirt in 16-degree weather. It didn’t take much to see that he was suffering from a nervous breakdown.

Once we got him back home to Los Angeles, we found that he had been imprisoned in an Army stockade and eventually court-martialed and dishonorably discharged from the U.S. Army. He was then committed to Camarillo State Hospital, a mental health institution outside of Los Angeles. His mental state never really improved.

When I visited him, he would tell me of the beatings he would get within the Army stockade and then the subsequent “electrical shock therapy” they would administer him at the state hospital.

(Camarillo was an institution such as that portrayed in the movie, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” It and other such places were closed by 1997. It is now a state university in the California system.)

My draft experience
After my graduation from the University of Wisconsin, I was immediately drafted into the Army. There were no longer deferments given to students and I pulled the draft lottery number of four – which meant I was going in. I applied for Officer Candidate School, was accepted, and graduated as company commander of my class, OCS-3/72, at Fort Benning, Ga.

While doing my duty as a finance and accounting officer, I was appointed a new part-time position. I became a “race relations instructor.”

Racial tensions in the military were reaching a fever pitch. The Army trained a bunch of us Black officers to become part-time liaisons at the bases we were assigned. Such a distinction would make us negotiators in sensitive situations concerning the discipline of enlisted troops with any racial implications.

The tragedy of my cousin George would forever remain on my mind. I would feel good stepping into controversial disciplinary actions of Black enlisted troops.

Did my best
I am proud to say that I saved more than a few young Black soldiers from the harsh unforgiving discipline of military life. I even turned some “bad heads” around and they ended up officers in the end. I prevented many from harsh discipline, including dishonorable discharges.

With God as my witness, I helped level the playing field more than a few times. Unfortunately, many thousands did not get this chance and emulated George’s experience.

George died in January. He is doing fine in heaven now.

Harry C. Alford is the co-founder and president/CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce. Contact him via www.nationalbcc.org.

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