There was a missing element in the pageantry of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial events held here last week.
Amid an abundance of green fatigues and red, white and blue sentiments, there was hardly a black veteran's face to be seen.
Black veterans and veterans organizers who did attend the ceremonies on the Mall estimated that fewer than 1 percent of the estimated 50,000 to 100,000 veterans on hand were black.
"The reason most blacks didn't participate is they feel as though it's a real farce in the sense that most of the white veterans . . . are jumping up and down screaming, 'We are all veterans.' All that togetherness didn't take place in the war," said Stephen Howard, a black Vietnam veteran from the District of Columbia, who did not attend.
The abstention from public ceremonies by black veterans who fought their share and died their share has its origins in racial differences that, ironically, have come into play everywhere but on the battlefield, black veterans and veterans group officials said.
Blacks enjoyed racial equality on the front, they said, but experienced discrimination in the rear. Back home they were shunned for fighting an unpopular war like many other veterans, but they bore the added burden of hostility from civilian blacks who chastised them for fighting on the side of a white-dominated superpower against a small Third World country. Also, they returned to a society polarized by race and unreceptive to young blacks whose only skills had been learned in jungle warfare.
"People said, 'Hey, you went and fought against your brothers and killed them,' " said Robert Holcomb, a black veteran who lives in New York City.
"[Black veterans] hang out with the veterans groups and find the majority are white. They feel divided and somewhat conquered. They are kind of in limbo. They're in a void and don't know where to go."
In addition, many black Vietnam veterans perceive themselves as outsiders now that public opinion appears to be shifting toward acceptance of Vietnam veterans, if not of the controversial war itself, veterans and officials said.
"We don't feel a part of the whole hoopla, the resurrection . . . the effort to reverse the 1970s view of the war," said Bill Edward, an Urban League program coordinator who has worked with black veterans. "Primarily, it is because black veterans have not felt they were included in the efforts so far to reintegrate them into the society."
Rick Weidman, director of government relations for the Vietnam Veterans of America, said efforts were made to invite blacks to last weekend's Veterans Day events. "We went out of our way to send news releases to black news organizations," he said.
But, he added, the lack of response is consistent with a pattern of nonparticipation in veterans activities by black Vietnam vets. "There are no veterans organizations that really have been successful in recruiting black veterans in the numbers which one would want," he said. "Even ones that have made a special effort, including us."
Large groups such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion do not keep figures of black membership, but, said Jim Witek, a spokesman for the Legion, "I must say the participation is not as great percentage-wise as we would like."
Weidman said the Disabled American Veterans probably has the largest percentage of black membership among the major organizations. Meanwhile, black veterans groups, such as the National Association of Black Veterans with headquarters in Milwaukee and 13 chapters around the country, remain relatively small.
The dearth of black faces on the Mall a week ago may also be attributed, veterans and officials said, to the cost of traveling to Washington.
Taken together, these factors highlight the separate realities faced by blacks and whites who fought in Vietnam. From the beginning, the black experience in Vietnam was different.
In the early years of the war, a disproportionate number of blacks were in combat and a disproportionate share of blacks were listed as casualties. The National Advisory Commission on Selective Service reported that in the first 11 months of 1966, blacks suffered 22 percent of the casualties in the war. Blacks made up about 11 percent of the population at the time.
Wallace Terry, who covered the war for Time magazine and is the author of "Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans," said the large number of blacks in combat was a result of economic factors.
In the early 1960s, many blacks were making the decision to enter the military as a career because of a shortage of job opportunities in civilian society. Once in uniform, he said, these professional black soldiers tended to volunteer for combat duty.
"A lot of the black guys, like the Hispanic guys, drifted toward the combat units because it was a macho type of thing," he said.
At the height of the war in 1968, however, there was an infusion of black draftees who were less likely to volunteer for dangerous duty. As whites were brought into combat in greater numbers, blacks comprised a smaller proportion of total casualties than they did in the early years of the war.
Overall during the war, Veterans Administration figures show, blacks and whites shared the burden of battle roughly equally. Of those killed in battle, 87 percent were Caucasian, 12 percent were black and 1 percent were Asian Americans, Indians and others.
After their discharge into society, blacks faced a different set of problems than whites. For one thing, many of them carried "bad paper," that is, less-than-honorable discharges that hindered them in finding jobs. A report issued by a working group of the VA Readjustment Counseling Service says that of 500,000 bad-paper discharges given to the 9 million who served around the world during the Vietnam era, as many as 45 percent went to blacks.
Terry said that much of the bad paper was a reflection of racial discord between black soldiers and white officers away from the battle zones. "Everything was cool on the front lines, but in the rear area it was the same old prejudice and racism," he said.
Some blacks, once back in the United States, grappled with the difficulty of finding a job. Others, like Harold Bryant after he returned from Vietnam, found themselves in military units mustered to police other blacks.
"My first time of coming to Washington, D.C., was to come here for riot duty," said Bryant, a District resident and director of the minority program for the Vietnam Veterans of America. "I had come into the country and they wanted me to turn the weapons I had used in Vietnam against my own countrymen. Can you imagine that?"
Stephen Howard, a combat photographer featured in "Bloods," said he was fortunate when he returned because he had a skill he could use in civilian society. A free-lance photographer, he said many blacks entered the military without an education or job skills and came out with talents that were useless to them. "Are there any jobs for qualified airborne parachutists?" he said. "How many people can get a job as a gunner in society today?"
Although Howard does not belong to any veterans organizations, he still thinks of the war and sometimes goes to the memorial on the Mall by himself for private prayer. Every Veterans Day, he said, "I become emotionally unglued." But he prefers not to dwell on Vietnam and said he, like other black veterans, has "tried to mobilize in the mainstream of society."
Some of his comrades have encountered serious emotional problems in doing so, however. Blacks who go to VA Vet Centers -- storefront counseling centers established to help Vietnam veterans -- often are there to seek job counseling and stay for psychological counseling.
According to the "Legacies of Vietnam" study commissioned by Congress, almost 70 percent of blacks who were in heavy combat suffer some level of post-traumatic stress disorder, compared with 23 percent of whites in heavy combat. The disorder is the modern equivalent of battle fatigue or shell shock. Psychologists attribute the high level of stress to societal discrimination and the black veterans' empathy for the Vietnamese.
"The black veterans tended to identify more with the Vietnamese, as being oppressed economically," said Ben Jennings, a psychologist with the Vet Center in the District. "There tended to be more identification with their plight, which interferes with the dehumanization which is necessary in combat."
For black Vietnam veterans, it appears the path toward redemption of their military experience and participation in the civilian mainstream is strewn with obstacles.
Said Bryant, "They don't want to bump their heads up against this military-industrial complex anymore."