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OPINION: Recognizing all our veterans

by Robert Box | May 19, 2021 at 5:25 a.m.

If you're like I am, you love good war stories, especially since we have won most of them (and, if John Wayne is in them, it doesn't hurt). But have you noticed that most veterans really don't like to talk about their war stories? Indeed, probably the single most prevalent ailment in veteran's hospitals these days is PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), something that occurs whenever the stress of an incident is so strong it exceeds a person's ability to deal with it. Veterans don't like to talk about those incidents.

The other thing about war stories that I find disturbing is how the movie media has shaped my perception of what actually happened. Yes, our movies do often show the ugly face of wars, but they also cannot actually depict what goes on with those involved. For instance, how does a soldier explain that a situation was so bad that he thought death was imminent and he lost control over his bowel movements? Or, as researchers have now discovered, that up to 90% of the foot soldiers during World War I never fired their weapons at the enemy with the intent to kill? Peacetime military activity is relatively easy, but we should never forget to honor those veterans who endured the stress of war to preserve our nation.

Some of those war stories are true, and most of them involved a lot of people who were not white. There were African Americans (even when they were slaves) who fought in the Revolutionary War and every war since, Japanese Americans who distinguished themselves fighting for our country during World II, and American Indians who were used to communicate among our troops using their native language. It has often been said that there are "no atheists in foxholes," and I also suspect there is no racism when you are standing side-by-side fighting for your life.

Most of us have heard how the Japanese Americans fighting in World War II became the most decorated division in the war only to return home to find their families in concentration camps. But did you know that one of the turning points of the Revolutionary War was when Africans signed up and fought for our fledgling nation only to be reduced to slavery when they returned home as heroes? And have you heard about the Harlan Hellfighters during World War I who were the longest-serving American front-line combat unit in the war?

According to Joe Williams in the May 2021 Smithsonian Magazine, the 15th Infantry Regiment of the New York National Guard was formed after Harlem civic leaders lobbied New York governor Charles Whitman to let black men prove themselves as soldiers. The unit was commanded by Coronel William Hayward, a white soldier from Nebraska. When the United States entered the war in 1917, the unit deployed to France, and the 15th was renamed the 369th Infantry Regiment. The men were forbidden to associate or train with white troops. Their initial duties included cooking and digging latrines.

Then, in the spring of 1918, when the French and British armies were depleted and they were desperate for American reinforcements, General John J. Perishing finally sent in the 369th, but he did so by saying "these soldiers are 'inferior' to whites and lack 'civic and professional conscience.'" He also wrote that the French civilians should not fraternize with them to avoid "spoiling them." After three weeks of training and outfitted with French rifles, the 369th went into battle, a month before any other American unit reached the front of the war.

Although several men in the 369th distinguished themselves early on, the regiment's most significant contribution came at Sechelt during the last major Allied offensive. Just before sunrise, Corporal Lawrence McVey and his squad took out the enemy machine gunners and the American Expeditionary Force parried the German thrust -- a prelude to a series of attacks that would eventually end the war.

The Hellfighters, as they came to be known, were the longest-serving front-line American combat unit in the war with 191 days in the French theater. They never gave up a trench. For their gallantry, the French gave the entire unit the Croix de Guerre award, their highest military award, and the Purple Heart to McVey. The 369th is believed to be the first U.S. regiment to be so honored. Despite a victory parade down Fifth Avenue in New York, the Harlem Hellfighters returned home to face bigotry and prejudice. It is time that we recognize all of our veterans and learn to praise them, no matter where they served and no matter what their race.

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Robert Box is currently the chaplain for the Bella Vista Fire Department and is a master-level chaplain with the International Conference of Police Chaplains. He also is currently a chaplain for the Benton County Sheriff's Office. Opinions expressed are those of the author.

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