Black vets faced greater danger in Vietnam War

By Billy Dennis

While their dreams were being deferred at home, their draft cards were certainly not. Black Americans were being asked to serve and die in Vietnam for a country that was still treating them as second-class citizens.

For Black History Month, history professor Matt Hinckley gave a lecture Feb. 12 on what it was like to be black during the Vietnam War.

Hinckley said in some cases, military bases in Vietnam were beginning to resemble the segregation America soldiers believed they were leaving behind. He said Americans increasingly began viewing the war as not their fight.

The black soldiers sent to Vietnam often found themselves in more danger than their white counterparts, Hinckley said. During that time, the black population in America was 13.5 percent, and they were underrepresented in Vietnam at 10.6 percent. However, Hinckley said they made up 12.5 percent of the deaths in Vietnam.

“But this doesn’t even tell the whole story,” he said. “Between 1965 and 1967, African Americans were actually suffering over 22 percent of the combat deaths.”

Hinckley said several factors contributed to these results. Black soldiers were often from a lower economic status and did not have access to the best education. Seventy-five percent were also drafted into the Marine Corps, a branch of service with limited occupations available. For many, the infantry was their final destination.

When they arrived to their units, they were often given the most dangerous assignments and missions, Hinckley said. Due to the attitudes of the time, he said many officers and sergeants viewed them as expendable.

“You could pretty much guarantee their experiences were worse,” Hinckley said.

Nursing major Diego Salas said the lecture was a bit harsh, but that it needed to be.

“We need to know the dark side,” Salas said, “so that history doesn’t repeat itself. There is a saying: ‘He {who] doesn’t know his history is doomed to repeat it.”’

Even under such harsh treatment, most black soldiers remained proud of their service.

Hinckley highlighted several black heroes from the war, including Spc. Lawrence Joel. Joel was a combat medic serving in the 173rd Airborne Brigade when his unit came under heavy fire, killing or wounding nearly every soldier in the lead squad. With complete disregard for his own life, Joel crawled from man to man, administering medical care.

He bandaged his own gunshot wound and injected himself with morphine before continuing to help others in the company. He was shot a second time, but managed to drag himself across the battlefield and help 13 more soldiers before his supplies finally ran out.

For his gallantry, he would be the first combat medic in Vietnam to receive the Medal of Honor.

“There was a lot we didn’t learn about [black history living] in Florida,” kinesiology major Calvin Ward said. “Many African-Americans made sacrifices for their country. [They] didn’t just stay at home.”

Hinckley said the war came at a time of tremendous upheaval in America.

“Given the time when the Vietnam War took place — in the midst of the Civil Rights movement and moving into the Black Power movement — there are so many connections and so much rich history to explore that we don’t even get a chance to cover in a regular class,” Hinckley said. “I thought they needed to be let out for some fresh air.”

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