The Crusader Newspaper Group

Being a Veteran isn’t Always Happy – Part 3

Beyond the Rhetoric

By Harry C. Alford & Kay DeBow

Let us repeat our first paragraph from Part I: “America is in love with its veterans. That’s the way it should be. Veterans who served in our military to provide security and a safe future for our citizens. These are our heroes and we should respect and appreciate the sacrifices they make for us. However, the love and bravery they show is not always appreciated. A big determinant and indicator as to how that veteran is going to be treated is his race or the race of those who make the decision to honor or ignore his efforts.”

There is no story as sad as that of Harry’s first cousin George McConnell. It hurts to think about it, much less write about it. George, like many members of Harry’s family, was a natural athlete. We were all proud of the physical development George was going through. His main sport was basketball. His athletic prowess began on the basketball court at Washington High School in Los Angeles. It soon became apparent that George was destined for stardom. When he was offered a full scholarship to UCLA, he became an instant hero to us.

The moment was short lived, however. UCLA was having a lot of social unrest. The anti-Vietnam War movement was in full swing. In addition to that, the Black Panther Party and its rival group US were having turf battles right on campus. The Los Angeles Police Department, LAPD, was notorious in its oversight of gang activity. It regarded UCLA as a special project.

One day during his first semester George and a friend were stopped and frisked while they were going to class. George had a marijuana joint in his pocket and that became the birth of a lifelong tragedy for our dear cousin. Coach John Wooden kicked him off the basketball team and canceled his scholarship. Thus, George’s future took a turn for the worse. The promise of basketball stardom at one of the most prestigious basketball programs had ended abruptly.

George was suddenly out of school with no future. His stepfather, Uncle Thomas Crawley, advised him that going into the army may be the start of rebuilding himself. George took the advice and enlisted. It was certain that he was going to get drafted during this era of the Vietnam War anyway. Enlisting would give him an advantage in choosing his military occupational specialty – MOS- and perhaps put him on a fast-promotional track. Besides, the army was taking all “comers” during this period. His first assignment would be “Boot Camp” at Fort Polk, Louisiana.

Something went wrong. George was not in communication during this time and we were all wondering what happened. Then one day we received a call from our Aunt Estelle who lived in Bossier Parrish, Louisiana. She had looked out her living room window and saw her nephew, George walking around in front of her house. She knew something was terribly wrong as he was wearing a short sleeve shirt despite the fact it was 16 degrees and snowing.

George had gotten into trouble with the military police – MPs. He was jailed for a period, dishonorably discharged from the Army and released from the military.

When you are dishonorably discharged from the Army you are escorted off the military post and released on your own. George evidently hitch hiked a ride to where he knew his Aunt Estelle lived. When he made it back to Los Angles he was diagnosed as having a nervous breakdown. It was extreme and he was admitted to the Camarillo State Hospital (now closed), a full-blown mental institution such as the one portrayed in the movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

Harry would visit George during this period and his cousin confided in him. He said that he spent time in jail (stockade) and was beaten daily. The State Hospital was nicer because they didn’t beat him. However, he dreaded having “shock therapy” treatments there. They would send electrical currents through the brain hoping to jar your memory back. This procedure is now illegal. George’s memory was stopped at a period around pre-high school. He had no memory of playing basketball or going beyond high school.

Having been dishonorably discharged, with apparently no right to a defense attorney, left him with no G.I. Bill of Rights. For the next five decades George would show little improvement. He was blessed with the unconditional love and care shown by his parents and then his brother after they died. Harry’s Aunt Mary appealed to her congressman for help in finding answers to George’s condition. The only thing she received was his official dishonorable discharge “DD-212” form.

Of course, there was death in Harry’s family which brought sorrow but also sweet memory. George’s demise was quite worse. He lived a tortuous life all the way through the age of 72. This veteran was doomed from the day he entered Boot Camp. His suffering was unyielding.

Mr. Alford is the Co-Founder, President/CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce. Ms. DeBow is the Co-Founder, Executive Vice President of the Chamber. Website: Emails: [email protected] [email protected].

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