This message is definitely off topic but the friend who sent it to me thought it worth an airing in consideration of tomorrow’s holiday. Its author wishes to remain anonymous to prevent any perceived conflicts at his job. For context, the author is a Hispanic 30 year veteran of the El Paso Police Department and a former homicide detective.
In the late sixties, thousands of young 18 year old kids received our “greetings” letter from Uncle Sam. It was the famous induction letter. Our rag tag group of friends known as the Purple Gang (we were given the name after showing up for a “poor boys” football league with our helmets painted Purple. One of our friends “borrowed” the paint from a neighbor and as it was purple and it was all we had, we showed up with purple helmets) received our letters as well.
Some of us not wanting to be drafted, signed up with different branches of the service. Two of our friends joined the Marines, two went into the Air Force, four of us joined the Navy, and the rest were drafted into the Army. And so it was that in the summer of 1966 the Purple Gang was shipped out of El Paso to various locations around the world. For reasons I still don’t understand, I was assigned to the Naval station in Charleston S. C. I was assigned to the U.S.S. Betelgeuse a cargo ship supplying nuclear weapons to the submarines in and around the Middle East and Europe. Some of the Purple Gang were shipped off to Vietnam, Japan, and the Philippines. The Purple Gang joined thousands upon thousands of 18 year old kids serving our country during the summer of ’66.
For the next two years, I traveled the Atlantic ocean shipping nuclear weapons, food, and ammunition to our troops in the European quarter. When not at sea, we were in our home port the Charleston Naval Ship Yard. And so it was that a young kid/sailor and several of his young black and Hispanic friends were made to sit behind the dividing white line on the bus. We rode with our black brothers and sisters, and were happy to do so. While serving my country, I was not allowed to drink from the only working water fountain in the downtown area. We were not welcomed or served in many of the restaurants in Charleston and if I needed to wash my uniform I had to wash it in the Laundromat used by my black brothers and sisters. Many of us were exposed to Asbestos on a regular basis, we would mix it up in buckets with our bare hands. We were subjected to noise levels that far exceed today’s safety standards on a daily basis. Some of us were sprayed with Agent Orange and other pesticides. Many of us were subjected to horrendous combat situations. We fought, cried, played, and somehow we survived. But unlike the Veterans of today’s wars, our coming home was not a welcomed one.
We were shunned and ridiculed when we wore our uniforms, we were called “baby killers” for participating in a war that most Americans detested. Many of our troops came back with PTSD but unfortunately for my generation PTSD was not recognized. We were told to suck it up, to be a man, it was part of war, “grow up, man up.” Many of my fellow veterans have developed mesothelioma, cancer, brain tumors and other illnesses from working with asbestos and from being sprayed with Agent Orange. Many of us suffer hearing loss from the constant whine of the engine turbines that we worked on every day. We came back a mess and unfortunately, we were ignored. As a result many of my fellow veterans have taken to the streets. They talk to themselves, hear noises, and just can’t seem to adjust to a normal every day life. They wander the streets of America on a daily basis.
So, I ask all of you who CARE, to be kind and generous to our Veterans. Singing in the choir is good, giving money in Church is good, but actually helping one of God’s children will buy you many more “heaven” points than anything you could possible do. There is a blind Vietnam veteran and his sidekick that sit next to the on ramp of I-10 and Cotton Street here in El Paso. We have developed a loose friendship. I call them Click and Clack. Somehow they get a big kick out of this. When they are not there, I wonder if one has died, if one or the other is sick, or if they have moved onto another city. But as is their usual, Click and Clack were at their corner today asking for help.
So, today, we delivered some tacos, a six pack of beer and twenty dollars to my two buddies. When I said we had food, some money, and a six pack of beer, they were to put it mildly, ecstatic. Many may disagree with giving them beer. Well, you may be right but at least I know that tonight Click and Clack will eat good, drink some beer, and maybe just maybe, the voices in their heads will subside. Maybe tonight will be a good night. I am sure that you have seen one of my fellow veterans holding a cardboard sign that states “Vietnam Veteran, anything will help,” Perhaps, you can find it in your heart to make his night a little more comfortable. Remember this as we enjoy our families and the long weekend. Remember that without their sacrifices America as we know it today, might not exist.