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.
By January 2007, we had over 1,000 appeals. By the end of 2007, more than 2,000 service members spanning 10 countries across the world had sent appeals to members of Congress calling for an end to the Iraq war and for U.S. service members to be returned home. Eighty-five percent of these appeals came from enlisted service members.
Many of the service members asked if I experienced any fallout from my chain of command due to my activist activities. And, before the launching of the Appeal for Redress, there was some form of petty harassment. During the "noose struggle," I was reprimanded verbally and in writing for supposed improper usage of the chain of command in dealing with the issue. Since the launch, the chain of command has been totally hands-off with the exception of the public affairs officer briefing me on my rights as a service member. My experience lends credence to the words of the abolitionist Frederick Douglass when he stated, "The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress."
On this Memorial Day, I advocate fighting for our service members in the present while paying homage to those who have given the ultimate sacrifice. Stop-Loss, a policy that began after the Vietnam War, has extended the commitments of over 80,000 service members beyond their scheduled time to leave the service. Over 10,000 Navy personnel have been augmented to support the current conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and across the globe. The delay in Congress expanding the GI Bill is disgraceful, considering the sacrifice in lives lost and mangled by this current conflict. No service member should have to worry about being jobless or homeless after having served in Iraq or Afghanistan. The least our country can do is guarantee our returning veterans a livable income, education, health care and housing. Democracy and freedom must begin at home.
Still, the roots of the racial tensions in the military run deep. Memorial Day has origins in the struggle to abolish chattel slavery in this country. The first Memorial Day was celebrated as "Decoration Day" in 1865 by newly freed slaves and Union soldiers after the Civil War. Memorial Day is an outgrowth of the struggle to save our Union. With this spirit, let us use this day to truly honor the sacrifice of our veterans by fighting for the social safety net they have rightfully earned from a loving and caring nation. Out of the many, we become one.
Johnathan Hutto is a Navy seaman and an anti-war soldier.