Beyond the Rhetoric
By Harry C. Alford
The Vietnam war had a physical span of 10 years, from 1965 – 1975, when we fled from the complex as if it were a plague. U.S. civilians, state department employees and Vietnamese seeking to flee from the ongoing North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops moving quickly towards Saigon which they renamed Ho Chi Minh City, left the country. 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.
There are 58,220 names on our Vietnam Memorial Wall. This is, in fact, a small portion of the mental and physical damage done to American veterans because of this conflict. PTSD, mental agony, drug addiction, widows/widowers and orphans caused by this ill-gotten conflict are perhaps too many to count.
A lot of the damage is based on the racial animus which plagued our society/nation 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 amount 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, very limited many of the young men being selected for the Draft were from meager means, lacked political influence and, sorry to say, were racially discriminated against.
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 into the Army. 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. As this process went on, increasingly it appeared that the “level playing field” was no longer in existence.
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 the prestigious Washington High School in Los Angeles. He became a scholarship recipient to UCLA. It was going so great! My cousin was going to play for the legendary coach John Wooden. Shortly after he started matriculating he and a few others were pulled over by campus police and were charged with marijuana possession. Coach Wooden was known for his no tolerance. George lost his scholarship. Almost, instantly George was now in the Army.
The change and shock was too much for my cousin. While at Ft. Polk, Louisiana 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, Louisiana 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 in Los Angeles we found that he had been imprisoned in an Army stockade and eventually court martialed and dishonorably discharged from the US Army.
He was then committed to Camarillo State Hospital which was a mental institution outside of Los Angeles. His mental state never really improved. When I would visit 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.” After staying there a while the chances of his improvement would be none. Camarillo and other such places were closed by 1997. It is now a state university in the California system.
After my graduation from the University of Wisconsin, I was immediately drafted into the U.S. Army as there were no longer deferments given to students and I pulled the draft lottery number of 4. 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 Ft. 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.” The 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 and 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. In reflection, 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 this last January. He is doing fine in Heaven now.