No, not THOSE “wise men,” not the Three Kings. I shall have “Rosca de los Reyes Magos” January 6th, 2017 with the three soldiers I write about here.
Three professors, in fact, three Doctors of Philosophy. Three good Americans and, one could say three wise men. I sing their praises today, because they are friends and because of what they represent—the legacy of positive military contributions to U.S. society.
First Wise Man: All my men are Army Veterans. All served both military duty in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. One, Dr. Samuel Freeman, previously a frequent contributor to these pages, served in Viet Nam. Samuel (means “wisdom,” if you remember your Judeo-Christian scripture) was a professor for 36 years with Pan American University and The University of Texas—Pan American (UTPA), Edinburg, Texas.
Dr. Freeman, originally from rural Georgia, taught U.S. Foreign Policy and Politics of Southeast Asia/Viet Nam (the second professor in the U.S to do so). He lectured on and off campus on international relations and military affairs. His training (Infantry, Airborne and Rangers) and service in Viet Nam provided real-life stories of men and women facing danger in far-flung spots in the world.
Freeman was dedicated to his mission, a proud American, but not a super-patriot. He served valiantly. This contrasts with “chicken-hawks” he often writes about, politicians who never served in our military and yet now declare a new “arms race.” (Have you heard Trump’s threats recently? Is Saturday Night Live right? He might “kill us all?”) It takes a soldier to warn us “war is hell,” and to advise us conflict among rival nations can be avoided by utilizing economic strength and diplomacy.
Dr. Freeman began his military career in 1963 with compulsory ROTC, Woodrow Wilson High School, Dallas, Texas. He continued with ROTC in college, receiving his commission as a Second Lieutenant. Then, straight to Infantry School, Airborne and Ranger Schools, Ft. Benning, Georgia. Samuel, as a White, Southern Officer, faced some hostility among Black troops in his 82nd Airborne platoon at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina. He felt a special pride when those same Black Viet Nam vets told him, before his departure, “Lt. Cherry, we would follow you back to Viet Nam.”
Lt. Freeman landed at night in a tightly packed, CIA plane, at Ton Son Nhut airbase in Sai Gon. He served as an Advisor to a Rifle Company of the Airborne Division, Army of the Republic of Viet Nam. He “killed and saw men killed.” His first duty was to “protect my men” and his desire was, of course, “to return alive.”
Samuel realized, as did many others the U.S. could not “win” the war in Viet Nam. Yet, he volunteered, believing only by “seeing with my own eyes” would he have the moral authority to continue his opposition. The Viet Namese paratroopers and people quickly won his respect.
After completion of active duty, now Captain Freeman utilized the G.I. Bill to earn his Ph.D. (University of Kentucky). But Viet Nam remains “the seminal experience of my life.” Freeman feels “my military experience confirmed some long-held beliefs, namely: 1) All human beings are equal and want essentially the same things in life. 2) War is inherently wrong; we all have a moral responsibility to oppose war. 3) The only way to achieve true justice is to stand up and speak out against injustice. I opposed the war, before, during and after my military service.”
Second Wise Man: Dr. Isidore Flores, former Texas A&M research professor, also served during the Viet Nam era. He is an ecological psychologist, specializing in preventative health issues in the south Texas “Valley.” He administers the non-profit International Valley Health Institute (IVHI—disclosure: I’m on the Board).
Dr. Flores began his military service November 1966. He finished South High School, San Antonio, and began attending San Antonio Jr. College (SAC). But “West Side” boys were ripe for the draft and often moved to the top due to their ethnicity. (He received the famous “Greetings” letter from President Lyndon Johnson, but had time to enlist.) He departed on “Tree Top Airlines” (TTA) in a World War II DC 3 to swampy Ft. Polk, Louisiana, for basic training.
Very telling about his code of ethics and loyalty, Flores brought home a buddy with him for the break–Sherwin Grey Owl, who had no money to bus to his home in North Dakota. After further training at Ft. Sam Houston, he served until November 1969 in a Medical (Mental Health) unit in Ft. Jackson, South Carolina.
One problem Isidore faced in South Carolina was the prevalence of local “good ol’ boys;” not the least tolerant of the Puerto Rican draftees. Some knew little English and/or were not wealthy enough to be in college. Isidore was valuable due to his Spanish. He helped determine who should be discharged before they could do damage to themselves or others.
Many of the troubled troops faced stress, challenging Isidore to be more creative in handling potentially explosive situations. One trainee, adjudged not mentally ill and thus rejected for discharge, freaked out, climbed a water tower, threatening to jump. Many could not handle the fake “Viet Nam” villages, complete with trap doors and simulated fire.
After Flores exited the Army he was glad for the G.I. Bill to help with graduate schools (Western Michigan and Michigan State). Isidore (named for Saint Isidore, Patron of Farmers) is still in the mental health area and is also a farmer (goats, horses).
But Isidore was a barrio, big city boy before and enjoyed service near urban areas. He performs those tasks today, helping people in south Texas with nicotine and other addictions as well as with testing and advice for preventing a major disease in the Valley—diabetes. He is giving back from the experience and help he was given.
Third Wise Man: The last individual I interviewed was the easiest—myself. Not that I count myself as “wise” as either Dr. Freeman or Dr. Flores, but am an Army Vet (first, EM in the Reserves: Camouflage Engineers and Ordinance; then, ROTC (Oklahoma A&M); then Active duty, Infantry and Army Intelligence). I have in common with both my compadres basic Infantry training in various charming bases around the country—mine, Ft. Hood, Texas and Ft. Benning, Georgia. Otherwise, our experiences were quite different—Samuel in Viet Nam, facing those deadly challenges or Isidore, dealing with unpredictable human psychology.
I had my own, perhaps less traumatic epiphanies in the military. That time of my life opened my mind in many ways. One of my favorite memories was being with an Afro American buddy in a foxhole, guarding the perimeter of our camp. I asked his religion. He said “Catholic.” I said “No, really? Thought you would be Methodist, or Holy Roller.” “Naw,” he replied, “I’m from N’Walins; lotsa Black Catholics down there.”
I learned much that challenged my previous stereotypes. I traveled, met Jewish soldiers, Afro American soldiers, groups I had not known in rural Oklahoma, amidst the Anglos, Native American, Germans and Czechs I grew up with. My changed perspective was provided partially by my military training—the self-discipline and the opportunity to “see the world.”
I trained at Ft. Holabird, Baltimore, in Army Intelligence (no remarks, please, about an “oxymoron”). I worked as a counter-intelligence officer (and, I hope, a gentleman). As with both of the above comrades, my military experience provided grist for my academic career. I was one of the few professors in our Political Science Department who had served (together with Professors Freeman, José Hinojosa and Bill Turk, both Marines); it gave me an international perspective, confidence and speaking ability.
The military gave me the G.I. Bill–oh, horrors! Socialism? It let me continue with graduate education after service. It helped me to buy my first home, to purchase reasonable insurance (USAA at first served only vets). Military service is good for the individual and good for the country. Many progressive countries utilize the military to build roads and schools. Nordic and other countries require at least one year service of all, women and men.
How great that President Truman integrated the U.S. military in 1948. The military I saw was, with exceptions, an egalitarian one. We met fellow soldiers of all ethnic and religious persuasions. Many of us were “support troops;” the “tooth-to-tail” proportion was about 1:12, similar to today. That is, we all count; we all serve. That is the part of my military experience I choose to remember and to extol.
We three are very patriotic, very pro-education and very progressive in our attitudes. The military helped make us that way. But now, December 2016, we have some wisdom to share: we are very pessimistic about the rise of intolerance, the gloating tone and (twisted twitter) content of a dangerous demagogue as he threatens a renewed arms race with Russia.
I wish we three “wise men” could say, “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Hanakkuh,” but a new, dangerous reality is facing us. We will need our steely, military resolve. We will need to deepen our social science scholarship, our writing and teaching abilities in order to help America regain its sanity and its commitment to democracy. Once again our country calls us.
Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying this guest column shows U.S. military personnel in Viet Nam. The image DOES NOT show Samuel Freeman, Isidore Flores or Gary Joe Mounce. The image, taken by D. Thornton, comes from a project undertaken by photo editor Kendra Rennick, who began soliciting Viet Nam War veterans for images they took during their tour of duty as a way to show an untold side of history. Click here for more details. http://www.thevietnamslideproject.org/