Closing Ranks–and Raising Hell, Too

An anti-war soldier speaks out on fighting from within.

Army Times Publishing Co.
Army Times Publishing Co.

A little more than two years ago, I was in the fourth month of a 6½-month deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom onboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71). The Roosevelt is a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier with the sole mission of dropping bombs on enemy targets. We were somewhere off the coast of Iraq; we could see oil tankers off the side of the ship when three white petty officers decided to play a prank by dangling a hangman’s noose in front of my face.

I believed these petty officers lacked a true understanding of the explosive history and emotion most African Americans attribute to the hangman’s noose. I wrote an open letter to my entire chain of command, demanding accountability for this act, which I considered a hate crime.

The main perpetrator was eventually demoted in rank from a noncommissioned officer to an airman and being restricted to the boat for 30 days. He later left the service.

But to me, it was a stark expression of the sometimes tortured relationship between African Americans and the military.

We, too, are patriotic. We, too, want to fight for our country. But reconciling that with history and injustices past and present can sometimes be a struggle. On this Memorial Day, that struggle continues.

Shortly after the noose incident, a friend mailed me a copy of “Soldiers in Revolt.” First published in 1975, the book is the definitive chronicle of the GI movement. Written by David Cortright, an enlisted service member and activist within the GI movement, the book documents the history of service members fighting in the Vietnam War and daily oppression within the ranks of the military. Black soldiers resisting riot duty and black sailors fighting against racism onboard the USS Kitty Hawk in the early ’70s are two of the countless struggles documented.

In 1969, 1,365 GIs took out a full-page ad in The New York Times calling for an end to the Vietnam War. It was this initiative that inspired me, along with active-duty Marine Sgt. Liam Madden, to launch

the Appeal for Redress, a Web site for active-duty service members to speak directly to Congress.

The Appeal for Redress is possible because of the 1998 Military Whistleblower Protection Act, which grants service members the right, without command approval, to talk to a member of Congress on any issue. Our Web site gives service members the opportunity to send an anonymous appeal to their member of Congress on the war or on any basic grievance.