We descended into the valley where the black granite walls of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial join, and it was quiet there, despite the dozens of people walking all around us. All seemed to share the feeling of being in a hallowed place.
As we walked past the names of the 58,022 Americans who gave their lives for their nation, I thought of the maelstrom into which our country descended during its longest war; it was indeed a valley of death. Emerging from the monument, I reflected on our nation's emergence from that war, changed forever from its posture of innocence and awakened to the limits of being a world power.
As we approach the 10th anniversary next week of the fall of Saigon, I wanted to visit the memorial, and did so despite my lingering sadness that too many veterans are still isolated from the painful process of healing that is now under way. I went there on a Monday afternoon with a friend.
Particularly isolated among those who came home from that wrenching conflict are black veterans, who shouldered extra burdens in Vietnam. When the memorial was dedicated amidst considerable pageantry last fall, only an occasional black face was present among the tens of thousands of veterans. While some black vets simply could not attend the ceremony, others saw hypocrisy in white veterans' talk of togetherness. In Vietnam, black veterans said they had been the objects of discrimination once they left the front lines.
Blacks died in disproportionate numbers in the early stages of the war; in its later phases, blacks stood up against the racial insults of their white fellow soldiers. Meanwhile, the war divided Americans back home, and serving in Vietnam became a mark of shame to civilian critics black and white. Black vets came home to the same hostile reception all the Vietnam vets received, plus the many reminders that racism was alive and well.
In "Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans," Wallace Terry painted a tableau of these unique burdens borne by black soldiers and recorded their heroism and their besieged patriotism. "I have believed that America owed the black veterans of the war a special debt," Terry said. " . . . What can be said about the dysfunction of Vietnam veterans in general can be doubled in its impact upon most blacks; they hoped to come home to more than they had before; they came home to less."
But despite their expectation of change and the reality of racism, blacks remained patriotic. As Reginald (Malik) Edwards, a Washington free-lance artist who fought in Vietnam in 1965 and 1966, told Terry: "There wasn't no problem fightin' the enemy. I knew Americans were prejudiced, were racist and all that, but basically, I believed in America 'cause I was an American."
Standing at this powerful monument inscribed with the names of the dead, I pondered the doubts many white Americans have had about the patriotism of black Americans. For whatever reasons, some white Americans still do not regard blacks as their fellow citizens, as Americans. It is an age-old attitude, although as recently as last fall, reports by the Brookings Institution and the Atlantic Council complained that the Army had become "too black."
This is an issue that I have always found infuriating. Growing up in Louisville, just a stone's throw from Fort Knox, I had seen black military men since I was a kid. In school, I was taught that black Americans fought in every military operation this country has engaged in since Crispus Attucks became the first colonist to shed his blood in the American Revolution in 1770. Indeed, the Department of Defense, in an official document titled "Black Americans in Defense of our Nation," traces black involvement in American military efforts even further -- to "the first recorded visit of a black person to what is now the United States in 1523."
Leaving the monument, I realized more than ever that our country is still recovering from the trauma of Vietnam. My sadness persisted, but I came away with fresh appreciation for our need to commemorate, to return symbolically to even the tragic past.
For the first time I felt a glimmer of hope and understood the responsibility that we all have, even black veterans, despite their double burdens in Vietnam and their double victimization back home, to look forward and keep trying.