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Love of country: Black veterans reconcile patriotism they feel with prejudice they endured

Updated: Nov 23, 2021

Brandon Drenon, Indianapolis Star

The silence of honor filled the Indiana World War Memorial auditorium.

On Veterans Day 2021, seven service members marched toward the auditorium stage, presenting the U.S. and military flags. Left, right, left, right — they precisely walked in unison and stopped. The Star-Spangled Banner began to play.

There — among the dozens gathered to respect and praise the military — Vietnam War veteran Richard Scott, 74, straightened his stance, pulled back his shoulders and brought his right hand diagonally across his forehead.

He saluted his country, which on that day, saluted the Black Navy veteran back.

“Today is the day we honor you,” one speaker said at the annual holiday remembrance.

“To every veteran out there – thank you, thank you, thank you,” said another elected official, followed by a burst of applause.

Honor and thanks absent 50 years ago for Scott, when he said his commanding officer in Vietnam decreed that a group of three or more Black soldiers was a congregation conducive to a riot.

Honor and thanks absent when that same year, 1968, Scott said, he was written up three times for greeting fellow Black soldiers with a particular “dap” fist-bump handshake.

Honor and thanks absent when Scott said his base camp and others across Asia refused to fly the flag half-staff after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., resulting in race riots so tense that he felt safer “in the bush” than he did in his own bed.

For hundreds of years, Black Americans have fought and died for American liberty, even when those liberties were not awarded to them equally. To date, Black service members still suffer, they said, from racial discrimination within the military and afterward as veterans, and a third of active service members fear retribution if they report discrimination, according to a recent survey. After their service, Black veterans account for a larger proportion (33%) of the homeless veteran population than their peers despite being a far less percentage of the overall veteran population.

Despite the disparities and feelings of unequal treatment within and after their military time, many are still proud service members, and proud Americans, who often say if they had the chance to do it all over again, they would.

A Purple Heart recipient, Scott would repeat his service “in a hot minute” if he could, even though he recalled "flagrant" and "overt" racial discrimination within the military.

“I loved the service,” Scott said. “I wouldn’t trade the experience of serving for anything.”

History of discrimination within the military

Scott is the historian at the Tillman H. Harpole American Legion Post 249, Indiana’s oldest Black American Legion post. Founded in 1936, it was named after 1st Lt. Harpole, a Black officer who died on duty in France during World War I in 1918.

Scott said most Black soldiers weren’t allowed to do much during World War I except cook, clean and other tasks unrelated to combat and decision making.

After the war, back home, Black veterans were met with increasing racial violence. The lynching of Black Americans rose from 58 in 1918 to 79 in 1919. At least 10 of those 1919 victims were war veterans, some lynched while still in uniform, according to the Army Historical Foundation.

During World War II, while still struggling for equality with the U.S., the enrollment of Black service members grew from less than 4,000 in 1941 to more than 1 million in 1945.

When Charles Williams, a retired Butler University professor, enrolled in the Air Force in 1956, inequality and racial discrimination persisted both inside and outside the military, he said.

Williams, now 85, was fresh out of basic training and “full of pride,” when he walked up to a movie theater in Jacksonville, Florida, during a long train layover on his way to New Jersey.

Williams, dressed in full uniform, was denied entry by the theater’s white attendant, he said.

“It was shocking, frustrating, unsettling,” Williams said. “There’s a possibility that I would be going to war for these people, this country, that woman.”

America has changed, Williams said. “But change is evolutionary. It’s not an overnight change.”

Racism lingering in the military today

As the American military strives for more equity and justice, racism still lingers, experts told IndyStar.

The number of service members who said they witnessed racism within the military increased from 22% in 2018 to 36% in 2019, according to a Military Times survey.

Daniele Anderson, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate and chief operating officer at the Black Veterans Project, called encounters with racism in the military a “slap in the face.”

There are certain assumptions about respect, she said, when making the sacrifice to enter into the military, America’s most trusted federal institution, according to a Pew Research poll.

When Black service members do feel victimized by racism, there is a reluctance to speak out, Anderson said, fearing retribution or squandering their chances of achieving higher rank.

“There are many ways in which your life can be made harder,” Anderson said. “And that's not always apparent to those outside of the military."

Anderson gave three examples of unofficial punitive measures commonly used against Black service members who complain: withheld information important to success, being assigned more tasks away from primary responsibilities and sleep deprivation.

She attributes instances like these to the large disparity in leadership within the military. Although they make up roughly 20% of active-duty service members, less than 5% of four-star generals are Black, according to an Associated Press report.

Even when high ranking status was achieved, 32-year Army veteran Brig. Gen. Kenneth Hubbard said Black officers were not excluded from discrimination.

“As a minority officer you understood that right, wrong or indifferent” Hubbard said, “it was looked upon more harshly when you did something wrong compared to your counterparts.”

A report by Protect Our Defenders revealed that Black service members were 32-71% more likely to be punished.

“We still believe in the country,” Hubbard said. “If you ask most military personnel, we still believe this is the greatest country in the world.”

Call of duty, love of country

Back on Veterans Day earlier this month, inside the Indiana World War Memorial, the American flag hung motionless above a crowd paused in reverence.

The official U.S. Navy song played from speakers, and Scott choked up, fighting to hold back tears, he said.

“I have a lot of pride,” Scott said, “being a part of something that is bigger than me.”

He too recognized the progress toward equality the U.S. has made since his time in Vietnam — changes he felt he was a part of.

“I might’ve played a minute roll,” Scott said, “but if you take me and other folks like me out, it would’ve never happened.”

It was this sacrifice, the sacrifice of self for future generations to have a better chance, he said, that made it all worthwhile.

With his right index finger, he gently tapped his chest over his heart and said, “The feeling of the love of country is going to beat there until I’m gone.”


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