All the chatter about Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods on Netflix this month reminded me of a book I read over 30 years ago, Wallace Terry’s Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans. I have an affinity for military history and had read a number of books about America’s 20th century wars but Terry’s book was the first one I encountered that told the complex story of Vietnam from the nuanced perspective of Black veterans. For me, I was a young sailor in the Navy then and Bloods, more than any other book I read, placed my father in a better context, as a black veteran and as a black man. One of my earliest memories was living in an apartment in Lompoc CA. I was about two years old. What I remembered was having my face pressed against the screen, excitedly waiting to catch a glimpse of my father walking from the parking lot to our apartment. The year was 1968 and my father was a sergeant in the US Air Force stationed at Vandenburg AFB. My father was a medic and I remembered his crisp uniforms and his cool sunglasses. My father was a 24-year-old, young married father from Gary IN.
When I was 12, my father gave me his old dog tags and told me the story about how he joined the Air Force. He had graduated from high school in June and, like many other young men in Gary, worked at US Steel ready to live the life his father had also lived. In September, my father was sent a draft notice which was not so much a surprise as it was an awakening for him. As he told me, he knew he did not want to be in the Army or the Marine Corps since he knew that joining either of those branches would, more likely than not, lead to a tour in Vietnam. So, he took his draft notice to the Air Force recruiter not long afterwards; the recruiter told him he could get him processed within three days. That was September 29th, 1964.
My father was proud of his service in the Air Force and, until he died, always reflected that he should have stayed in and retired. Instead, he served his enlistment and returned to Gary in late 1968 to tragedy, trauma, and to an emptiness that would frustrate him the rest of his life. Many of the men in his high school class and the class after him had died in Vietnam. Dad attempted to join the Gary Fire Department to become one of their first paramedics but faced obstacles from the predominantly white staff. Although Gary had elected its first black mayor in 1967, racial animus was such that by 1971, white flight had begun and manifested in the annexation of the town of Merrillville – located south of Gary. My father came home to a community that barely wanted him and a working-class life rapidly changing before his eyes. His job working for the Budd Company, which stamped car parts for Ford, disappeared forever in 1979.
Dad died at 50 years old. As his oldest son, I looked up to him and wanted so much to emulate him; it is why I wanted to join the military. However, even before I knew how to articulate it, I knew my father also suffered pain and trauma from duality. Like other black veterans, he was proud to be a veteran AND he was proud to be black but the home he returned to in 1968 was complex and unfulfilling for him. Not that the complexity was not there when he left but so much about serving this country is aspirational – many black veterans served with a thought that they were going to make things better at home. My father was one of the believers. After watching the trajectory of his life and reflecting on my own path, I believe a bellwether of America’s democracy in 21st century remains to be this society’s willingness to confront the juxtaposition of the black experience with racialized spaces such as the military – especially through the lens of patriotism. This is the reason that Terry’s Bloods resonated for me and it is also why I will spend the rest of my life discussing the intersectional nature of being a black veteran. More personally, though, all of this keeps me feeling like that kid that had his face pressed against the screen waiting for dad; it keeps me connected to his memory and to my own pride for his service.