When talking with Vietnam veteran Jerome Sams about his experience in the Navy, I could detect hurt and disappointment. I asked him, “What is it that you would like for us civilians to know?”
He hesitated, then said, “We joined the armed services by choice, but it would be great for you all to show more appreciation for the sacrifices that we made. Only a few businesses give discounts to us on special days.”
He went on to say that they had to pay to have their names inscribed on the bricks that are located in the heart of our serene town of Cave Spring.
The Veterans Brick Walk in Cave Spring holds the names of about eight of Jerome’s family members. I asked him how did that come about? He said one day he was speaking with his cousin Charles Sams and suggested to him that they should do what was necessary for their family members to have their names on the Walk, to represent the Sams family just as other Cave Spring families were honored. He said Charles agreed, the money was collected, and the rest is history.
Even after we’ve celebrated Veterans Day on Nov. 11, let us keep remembering that the wars took a toll on many families. Growing up, I can remember hearing about many families praying that the sons of the family would not get drafted. Having just one brother myself, I prayed the same prayer. My one brother was spared for our sake, but who is to say that he was better off working in Florida?
For many young men, going off to war was an adventure, as Jerome and Charles said it was for them. For some, it was a way for them to get away from the farm work of the South and the low wage jobs, or the no wage jobs, available in the community in which they lived.
When I think of the Black man and his desire to fight in wars, I always visualize the scene in “A Soldier’s Story” when the Black troops were told that the U.S. was going to be fighting in World War II. They grabbed up their equipment and made up songs about how they were going to whip Hitler and his cronies with vengeance. They made up songs with lyrics like, “Look out Hitler here we come.” The amount of joy and jubilation could not be measured.
Black men for a long time were not welcomed in the armed services because those in power did not want them to be in possession of promotions and guns. Many were put in positions that did not require them to have weapons. In fact, the war in Vietnam was America’s first racially integrated conflict.
Black soldiers had fought in all of America’s preceding military engagements, but in segregated units. Although President Truman put pressure on the U.S. armed forces to integrate in 1948, some units in the Korean War were still divided by race.
As was stated in my column “Losers and Suckers? Here’s the Thing,” at a very young age, the Sams brothers and cousins participated in some of the most dangerous wars that America has ever fought. One of those wars was the Vietnam War.
I can remember that, during the ’60s, I was both fascinated and troubled by the Vietnam War, especially when the truth about us losing so many lives and killing so many innocent civilians was reported. The conflicts were broadcast daily, and I rushed from work just to get the report about where the skirmishes took place that day and how many young soldiers were killed. It was the breaking news of the day for me during 1967-68 in particular.
Charles and Jerome were both involved in that horrific war. Charles experienced or witnessed atrocity at the beginning of the war. He was on the ground with the Viet Cong. Jerome never was on the ground. American troops were being withdrawn when his Navy ship arrived. He stated that, based on what Charles shared with him about the Vietnam War, he was blessed not to have taken an active part.
Jerome has no regrets about his decision to be a part of the American armed services. He said that he took advantage of all of the opportunities afforded him. He was able to travel to many different places in the world and open himself to learning about the various cultures. Today he is a bigger and better man because of his varied Navy experiences.
Charles is the oldest one of the Sams living. He went on three tours and served in Germany, France, Italy, Lebanon, and Vietnam. I kid him a lot about living in Germany, where he seemed to have flourished and come back speaking German. Some days, I catch him off guard and ask “Sprechen sie deutsch?” He looks at me with a big smile on his face and answers “Ich spreche ein bisschen Deutsch. And don’t ask me any more questions in German because I have forgotten most of what I once knew.”
Charles is most delightful when sharing his Army experiences. One can tell that these two veterans would do it all over again if they were 30 years younger.
This year we did not get to honor veterans as they deserve, but a new day is dawning. Even if it is a family member, make it a point to show appreciation for their sacrifices. He or she would appreciate a simple gesture as “Thank you for your service.”