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Celebrating accomplishment and confronting racism at the Veterans Excellence Award Gala

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The color guard from the U.S.S. Constitution parades out off the main deck after presenting the colors. Photo by Colin Tsuboi (He/Him) / Mass Media Contributor.

On the tenth floor of the Healey Library is a tiny research institute named after Vietnam Veteran William Gilbert Joiner Jr., the first director of UMass Boston’s Veterans Affairs Office [1]. Bill Joiner was one of many Black Americans who fought for a country which subjugated him in a war of dubious merit, while the civil rights movement was in full swing back home. The William Joiner Institute for the Study of War and Social Consequences was formed in his name just a year before his untimely death from cancer, possibly due to Agent Orange [1].
Recently, WJI launched the “Honor-A-Vet” program. This program recognizes one Veteran who has reached “outstanding post-service achievements” each month [2]. The idea behind it is most Veterans have lived a far fuller and more meaningful life than only their relatively short time in the military can reveal. They should undoubtedly be honored for those post-service accomplishments.
Last week, WJI hosted its annual Veteran’s Excellence Gala, which centers around choosing one of the year’s monthly awardees for the annual award—a beautiful, copper bust of William Joiner Jr. himself.
Now, full disclosure, having worked at WJI in the past, I was invited to attend this gala. I chose to go not only because I wanted to see my old coworkers, but because I believe in the idea of the award. Tom Miller—CEO of WJI—told those in attendance that he wished his dad “had been acknowledged [for his post-service achievements] before his eulogy.” I could not agree more.
What I didn’t expect was to be so captivated and challenged by the two key speakers that night. Let me explain.
When it comes to discussing the military, a lot of internal conflict bubbles to the surface. On one hand, I have a significant history of military service in my family, and I love a lot of Veterans. One grandfather was a sonarman on the U.S.S. Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin when the Vietnam War kicked off; my other grandfather met my nona in Italy during World War II; my dad did computer security for the Air Force.
On the other hand, my dad once told me that he was happy I ended the cycle of military membership in my family, and I feel the same way. I have a personal aversion to certain aspects of the U.S. military, and how they are abused by the U.S government. My formative years stretched over the Iraq and Afghan war era after all, and I grew up watching The Daily Show with my very liberal dad.
In short, the complexities of military service defy either a unilateral respect or wariness for me. There are service members I love and honor, and service members who I think joined the military for all the wrong reasons. I simultaneously acknowledge their personal agency and see them as victims of a societal narrative about U.S. exceptionalism and might—and often of predatory recruiting practices that funnel economically challenged communities into military service.
So, coming into the gala, I knew I was going to face those same conflicting feelings. Indeed, certain aspects of the event did make me a bit uncomfortable.
When the post-service achievements of each nominee were discussed and honored, I found my heart swelling. The community service so many of them have dedicated themselves to—whether it is helping veterans overcome the horrible struggles they deal with day-in-day-out or uplifting the marginalized communities where they spent their own formative years—is really quite amazing. I couldn’t help but grin every time Miller expressed deep gratitude for their work, followed by the resounding echo of applause.
Like I said, this was only expected. The gala was a touching show of gratitude for people who more than deserve it from beginning to end, personal politics aside. What really gave me pause was the absolute poignancy of the juxtaposition between the keynote speaker, Arthur Mabbett, and the annual Veteran’s Excellence Award, Dr. Roger F. Harris.
Mabbett spoke first. His story was fascinating. He received a post-graduate degree in environmental science just a few years after “Silent Spring”—a book that many credit with launching modern environmentalist movements—was published [3]. That alone makes him quite a pioneer—but being appointed as what was essentially the head “environmental officer” of his Army base in Hawaii during Vietnam makes him even more of a trailblazer.
What he chose to focus on next caught me a little off-guard. Mabbett began to speak about how frustrated he was at some of the rhetoric in popular discussion today. “America is not racist,” he insisted. “Don’t let anyone tell you we’re a flawed society.”
His proof was an ancestor of his—Alonzo Lorenzo Mabbett. Alonzo Mabbett was a Civil War Vet and a Quaker, whose family was involved in the Underground Railroad. He was befriended by a freed Black man while recovering from the loss of an arm, and they formed a lifelong connection—detailed in part of a book called “The Left-Armed Corps” [5]. The reasoning was a bit cryptic, but I believe that Mabbett was trying to point out that the U.S. has striven against racism for well over a century.
I found myself a bit taken aback at these comments. They seemed odd and a bit of a tangent—though he had just been giving some solid advice for young people about the future, which is a somewhat related topic. It also seemed more than a little misguided. It was a shame; I otherwise really liked Mabbett and respected his pioneering role in the environmental sciences.
But then, as if by divine providence, Dr. Roger F. Harris—Vietnam Veteran and long-time educator throughout Greater Boston [4]—was officially awarded the annual Veteran’s Excellence Award, and stepped up to the mic.
What followed was one of the most powerful talks I’ve ever heard in person. I still can’t recall how long he was on the stage exactly; time seemed to stop as he spoke. He told us about his experiences as a U.S. Marine in some of the worst fighting of the Vietnam War; he told us about how he prayed that he would either die so that his mom could get a 10,000-dollar payout, or that he would live without losing a limb. He told us of the horrific training and indoctrination of the U.S. Marines during that time.
Most importantly, seemingly in respectful response to Mabbett, Harris spoke about the blatant racism and abuse that he experienced immediately upon touching back down in the states.
You see, when young Harris stepped out of Logan Airport to catch a cab home after 13 months in Vietnam, nobody would stop for him. A local police officer finally intervened, stopping a cab and opening the door. The officer pointed to Harris and asked the cabbie to give him a ride. “But I don’t want to drive into Roxbury,” the cabbie said.
“How did he know I was from Roxbury,” Harris asked himself, before quickly coming to the answer. “He didn’t see a man in military dress,” he told us. “All he saw was a n—–, and n—–s live in Roxbury.”
I probably don’t have to explain the palpable feeling in the room after that story was dropped.
You see, Arthur Mabbett spoke about the poor treatment of Vietnam Veterans—true enough—and how the U.S. is not a racist country. Yet in Dr. Harris’ experience, we have a local police officer extending respect to a Vietnam veteran, and a cabbie refusing service to a Black man because of where he assumed he lived.
Harris told us that, not too long after this, he was reactivated to service for mysterious reasons. When he asked his commanding officer if he was going back to Vietnam, the officer told him they were going to Washington D.C. to “keep the peace” during the riots that had erupted after Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination.
Harris refused to go. “If we go, people will die. We’re killers. That’s what we do,” he told the Commanding Officer. “They’re not killing people; they’re burning buildings.” He was dismissed.
As I walked back to my car that night, my mind was all ablaze. The experiences that both men went through were so different, and yet so similar. One went to Vietnam as a soldier, the other blazed a trail for environmental science in Hawaii. One was Black; the other White. But both were both Vietnam Veterans, both were Bostonians, and both became dedicated to positive change in their post-service lives.
Their perspectives were so wildly different. One saw the U.S. as unbigoted as a whole, moving forward with togetherness; the other saw the cruel reality of bigotry day in and day out.
I found myself challenged by what I had just seen and heard. It forced me to confront how, as a White man, I have the luxury—some might say privilege—of ignoring or even dismissing the idea that we live in a racist and divided society, while others simply cannot.
To be totally fair, I’m not dismissing Mabbett’s opinion that we are not as divided as some make us out to be. I think that is a fair enough take. But we also have to recognize that for tens of millions of Americans, the dividing lines that do exist are crippling and often violent.
While I didn’t expect this to be my takeaway from a Veteran’s Excellence Gala, I’m also not surprised. Not too long ago, I read a collection of first-hand accounts from Black Vietnam Veterans called “Bloods: Black Veterans of the Vietnam War: An Oral History” by Wallace Terry [6], which opened my eyes to the tortuous complexity of being a Black American in that awful war.
I recommend you all pick it up and give at least some of it a read. I think William G. Joiner Jr. and Dr. Roger F. Harris would be pleased if you did.
[1]https://blogs.umb.edu/joinerinstitute/
[2]https://www.umb.edu/joinerinstitute/honor_a_vet
[3]https://www.nrdc.org/stories/story-silent-spring
[4]https://www.literacysupport.org/roger-f-harris.html
[5]https://www.amazon.com/Left-Armed-Corps-Writings-Amputee-Veterans/dp/0807177075
[6]https://www.amazon.com/Bloods-Black-Veterans-Vietnam-History/dp/0345311973

About the Contributor
James Cerone, Opinions Editor