Beyond the Rhetoric
By Harry C. Alford & Kay DeBow, NNPA Newswire Contributors
Let us repeat our first paragraph from Part I: “America is in love with its veterans. That’s the way it should be. Veterans who served in our military to provide security and a safe future for our citizens. These are our heroes and we should respect and appreciate the sacrifices they make for us. However, the love and bravery they show is not always appreciated. A big determinant and indicator as to how that veteran is going to be treated is his race or the race of those who make the decision to honor or ignore his efforts.
Harry lost two good friends during the Vietnam War. First, let’s talk about Patrick G. Fitzsimmons. Pat went to Buena High School in Ventura, California while Harry matriculated at Oxnard High School in nearby Oxnard, California. They were both football stars during their high school days and went on to Ventura Community College to further their education as well as hone-in on their football skills in hopes of playing major college ball.
Harry met his goals and played for the University of Wisconsin, graduated in 1970 and was inducted into the Army (via the Draft) in 1971. Pat, however, had some trouble keeping up his grades and entered the Army January 4, 1970. His tenure in the Army took off like a rocket. He became a Warrant Officer and a helicopter pilot. He started his Vietnam Tour on January 4, 1970.
Pat, while on reconnaissance, was shot down on August 24, 1970. Some of his crew survived but Pat was killed instantly. Pat’s service and sacrifice gave him instant hero status. He received formal hero ceremonies and the football stadium where he and Harry played together was renamed in his honor.
Pat was awarded the posthumous Purple Heart. His family received Death Benefits which were at the time $15,000. He served proudly and was rightly honored for his sacrifice. His Vietnam URL on the War Memorial in Washington, DC is www.VirtualWall.org/df/FitzsimmonsPG01a.htm
Prior to Pat’s demise, Harry had another good friend and distant cousin. Ivra Allen Tatum aka “Speedy.” Speedy was very popular, a member from the large and prestigious Tatum Klan based in Ventura County. He was born and raised in Stephens, Arkansas. There was the contrast between Pat and Speedy. Pat, white and an athlete with a load of charisma while Speedy, a handsome Black with a load of ladies chasing behind him.
Speedy’s biggest challenge would be his Arkansas roots. His selective service office back there would play into the Jim Crow discrimination that ran rampant throughout the South. Blacks were being drafted at exponentially higher rates than whites especially in the southern states. Death rates were also unfair based on the race of the soldiers. Speedy was drafted into the Army as a member of a helicopter crew (like Pat) on March 26, 1967. He was a corporal with a specialty of Light Weapons Infantry and was assigned to the 1st Aviation Brigade, 187th Aviation Company. Just like Pat, he was destined to flying helicopters. However, his tenure would quickly come to an end – less than 4 months of service. His “chopper” went down with no survivors.
This is when racism rears its ugly “head.” It took a few days to find the remains of Speedy’s helicopter. As opposed to recording his death as “Killed in Action,” they classified it as “Non-Hostile Died While Missing, Air Loss Crash.” This is very significant. Our government wanted to suppress military deaths. Body counts were very political. Speedy is likewise honored on the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington, DC. Name inscribed at VVM Wall, Panel 23e, Line 32. Why did they describe Speedy’s death in such a strange way? They avoided giving him the Purple Heart Medal. This speaks volumes!!! Also, and therefore, they didn’t have to give his family the due Death Benefits ($15,000)
Speedy received: Combat Infantryman Badge, National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Campaign Medal, Distinguished Unit Citation, Vietnam Gallantry Cross and the Good Conduct Medal. But there will be no Purple Heart!
It has been 52 years and the Tatum family are still hurt and outraged by the omission of their war hero. This example of racial contrast is just one of many, many thousands of cases that happened during US military theatres.