Early one December morning in 1969, three masked men accosted the driver of a mail truck that was standing at a loading dock of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board on Indiana Avenue NW. Their faces were smeared with ash, and one was dressed like a postal worker.

Forcing the driver into the rear of the truck, the men asked him where the money was. He pointed to a bag. Inside was $382,000 of worn-out currency, en route to the Treasury Department where it was to be destroyed.

The men were armed, but they told the driver they weren't going to hurt him. One of the robbers said the money was "for needy black kids." He instructed the driver to tell the police that the robbers were white; then he reconsidered and told the driver to say "Some brothers robbed {me} and they all look alike."

Twenty-five years later, Ari Sesu Merretazon sat down at a Hollywood screening and watched the premiere of "Dead Presidents," the new movie from the Hughes brothers about a group of black Vietnam veterans who paint their faces white and steal worn-out federal currency. Merretazon is a minister who lives in Little Rock. But in 1969, he was an embittered Vietnam veteran named Haywood Kirkland, trying to readjust to civilian life in Washington. Back then, he used to hang out at the Africa Hut, near 14th and U streets NW, talking politics. That's when he hatched the idea of donning a postman's uniform and pulling the biggest heist this town had ever known.

The Hughes brothers -- 23-year-old twins Albert and Allen, who had announced themselves with "Menace II Society" -- bought Merretazon's story and hired him as a consultant when they made "Dead Presidents." He had visited the set, talked to actor Larenz Tate, tried to explain who he had been at 22. At the screening, the twins warned Merretazon that the movie was based only loosely on his life. And for 120 minutes, he watched a film that includes scenes as grim and blood-spattered as anything that Hollywood can deliver.

"I was expecting to see something I could recognize and say, That's me,' " says Merretazon, 48, from his home in Arkansas. But the tale on the screen wasn't familiar at all. "I never killed anybody," he says. "I never got into violence or anything like that."

The movie depicts horrific sequences of the Vietnam War. But it didn't show how Merretazon got radicalized there, how his decision to rob the truck was born of political rage. It didn't show how he became an inmate leader while serving time at the Lorton Correctional Facility, how he testified before Congress about the problems confronting incarcerated veterans, how President Carter invited him to the White House.

At the end of "Dead Presidents," the main character is headed for prison. "The movie ends," Merretazon says, "where my life begins."

Just as it took years of struggle for Haywood Kirkland to become Ari Merretazon, it took years for author Wallace Terry to write a book that told Merretazon's tale. "Bloods," Terry's book about the black experience in Vietnam, was finally published to critical acclaim in 1984. More than a decade passed before Merretazon's story made its way onto the big screen. But Hollywood has transformed it so much that the man who lived it doesn't recognize it. Neither does Terry.

The telling of the tale began in 1967, when Time magazine sent Terry, a former Washington Post reporter, to Vietnam. Terry had already written a cover story titled "The Negro Soldier in Vietnam"; now he was returning as a correspondent and gathering material for a book.

Terry, who was breaking ground as the first black war correspondent for the mainstream media, saw the role of blacks in Vietnam as "seminal in American history." Vietnam was America's first fully integrated war, and Terry thought the armed services could present an unprecedented opportunity to advance race relations. Terry saw black soldiers proving their valor but paying a disproportionate price: During the war, the percentage of black combat casualties exceeded African American representation in the armed forces.

Terry had been trained as a Baptist minister and was sometimes called upon to administer last rites. "Then you feel this tremendous pull telling you that this shouldn't be going on," he says. His experiences during the war would define his life.

In 1971, two years after leaving Vietnam, Terry finished his account of the war, pouring all the despair and redemption he had seen into 650 typewritten pages of nonfiction prose. "I thought I had the two most compelling subjects I could have picked . . . a combination of Vietnam and civil rights," says Terry, who lives in Reston. "{But} I had combined the two worst subjects I could have picked and the only thing more unpopular: black men with guns."

Over the next 11 years, publishers rejected Terry's book 120 times. "It was very painful in my house," he says. "My children were saying prayers: Please find Daddy a publisher because he's driving us nuts.' "

Finally, in 1982, an editor at Random House suggested that Terry recast the book as an oral history of the war. Terry started over, using tapes he had made in Vietnam and seeking veterans to interview. Meanwhile, he was teaching journalism at Howard University. A student who heard about his work-in-progress told him he should meet her husband. She introduced Terry to Haywood Kirkland, who by then had become Ari Merretazon.He was one of 20 veterans whose stories were told in "Bloods."

Kirkland grew up in D.C., an undistinguished student at Eastern High School but an accomplished pool player. He got drafted in 1966 and spent a year in Vietnam. He was never wounded though he nearly died of malaria.

When he got home, he took a job with the postal service but found that it reminded him too much of the military. He briefly studied computer programming. Classes were useless, he says; they taught him nothing.

"D.C. was on fire from the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King," he explains. And Kirkland was burning, too. He had begun a political awakening in Vietnam.

"A lot of black soldiers was talking about race relations," he says. "We would talk about how we were going to go home and fight our own war."

When he returned to the United States, he faced the rude reception that greeted many returning soldiers, both black and white. "Even my own people said, You was crazy for going over there in the first place,' " he remembers. "There was no readjustment period for me. I left Vietnam -- 22 hours later I was back."

At the post office, Kirkland had learned about worn-out money that was brought back from Army bases in Europe to be destroyed. He devised a plan for the robbery. "Our community was totally undeveloped," Merretazon explains. "I thought that with some resources, we could do some of the things that we thought was right to do -- set up community medical centers and things of that nature."

In court, defense lawyers tried to portray Kirkland and an accomplice as "friendly bandits" who never really threatened the truck driver. And indeed, Kirkland had already given some of his money away to his neighbors. Still, the judge sentenced him to up to 30 years.

Once in jail, Kirkland became a prisoner's advocate specializing in the problems of incarcerated veterans. A quarter of the Lorton inmates had been in Vietnam. Kirkland took courses at the Antioch School of Law, appealed his conviction and taught others how to work the system. The judge reduced his sentence based on his efforts to help fellow inmates. He got out in 1975 after serving 5 1/2 years.

Merretazon says the name he adopted while in prison means "guardian servant chosen to do the will of the creator" in an ancient Egyptian dialect. Once he was released, he continued to run an organization he had started in prison, the Incarcerated Veterans Assistance Organization, out of the basement of his house on Peabody Street NE. The Veterans Administration soon hired him as a counselor for incarcerated veterans in Little Rock.

Later, he worked as the editor of a black newspaper; he then earned a master's in community economic development from New Hampshire College's graduate school of business. (The school waived undergraduate requirements based on Merretazon's life experiences.) He embarked on a teaching career in Arkansas. But in 1990, his car was hit by an 18-wheeler. He was in a coma for five days, lost his memory for weeks; it ultimately took him nearly three years to recover.

Some might call it a near-death experience, but Merretazon says it was a "near-God experience." He started the interfaith Developing Times Ministry, training pastors and church leaders in community development. He sells air-purification systems on the side.

Merretazon still remains on unsupervised parole. He was reminded of that when he tried to run for the Little Rock school board in 1993. His opponent sent a copy of "Bloods" to reporters and Merretazon learned that he would have to drop out of the race. "In D.C.," he points out, "I could still vote and run for political office."

As soon as "Bloods" was published to rave reviews, Hollywood started calling Wallace Terry. But Terry wasn't ready to let go. He wanted an epic -- a film that would have meaning. "I went to plenty of meetings, but I never sold my material," he says. "I wanted to be part of producing it. I wouldn't give it up."

Finally he settled on a partnership with Quincy Jones, who had co-produced "The Color Purple." While hoping to see a film version take shape, Terry developed a one-man show that was based on "Bloods" and performed at 250 colleges and museums across the country. He was on the road for six years. Meanwhile, there was no progress on the film. Determined to keep it alive, Terry began to look for another partner.

Then one day the Hughes brothers called. They wanted the rights to "Bloods." After some negotiation, it became clear they were really interested in one chapter: Merretazon's story.

"That was not going to hurt my project," Terry says. "My vision was entirely different from what they were going to do. . . . And since they were going to write me a check larger than anything I had ever seen in my life and it was 10 times larger than the advance I had received for Bloods,' it was hallelujah time."

Merretazon was happy, too, when he got the call from Hollywood. "I said, Great, man. I can't wait.' "

Now, he and Terry pick their words carefully when asked about their reactions to the film.

"I understood it was Hollywood," Merretazon says. He adds that he was touched that the Hughes brothers named two characters -- Curtis and Sarah -- for his parents. But did he like the movie? Merretazon doesn't like the question.

"I am not criticizing that movie," he says. "I didn't make the movie. I am not responsible for the movie. So it's all on the Hughes brothers. . . . Of course I would have liked to have it have a little more to do with the politics of the time, but that's just armchair quarterbacking right now. I want to support them. They are young, enterprising, talented filmmakers. They're 23 years old -- you know? . . . They did a good job. The movie's successful, making money, and I'm proud of them."

Terry also is guarded. "They made it clear to me that they were going to tell their own story," he says. "It's definitely a Hughes brothers movie. It's not my vision. When I do my story, it will emphasize the leadership and heroism of black soldiers, which has been missing."

That story hasn't been told in any of the Vietnam movies Terry has seen. He was particularly upset with "Platoon" because he had spent time with the division portrayed in the film, which included the first two black officers ever awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Both received the honor posthumously. "You didn't see any evidence of that," he says. "The black guys in that movie are cowards, they're inept and they're drug users."

Terry also points out that the Hughes brothers are young filmmakers, "more visual artists than internal artists. . . . You don't see the character change. You see action."

The Hughes brothers did not respond to repeated calls from the Washington Post.

Terry chooses to regard "Dead Presidents" as a preamble to his movie, and says that comedian Sinbad is interested in helping him bring his epic vision of "Bloods" to the screen.

Merretazon says he, too, is hoping for a sequel that will tell the rest of his story.

"God carried me through some real troubling times to get me to where I am now," Merretazon says. "I learned something from the war and I learned something from prison. There's a real life-redemption value to my story. . . . I think they achieved their goals, but the true story of Bloods' and Vietnam veterans still should be told in some cinematic way." CAPTION: Writer Wallace Terry -- whose 1984 book "Bloods" inspired the film -- at his leafy Virginia home. CAPTION: Freddy Rodriguez, above, and Larenz Tate, right, in the Hughes Brothers' "Dead Presidents." CAPTION: Ari Sesu Merretazon, now a minister in Little Rock, pulled the Washington mail truck heist that inspired "Dead Presidents."