The Elevation and Depression Surrounding the Military: An Interview with Butch and Larry Johnson

By Ja’Kiya Price-Singleton, Tennessee State University

As a citizen of the United States, I cannot count how many times I have heard the saying, “freedom is not free.” As an African-American, I understand and conceive this saying, but my generation has never truly experienced that sort of confinement. I have heard countless stories of the wars we have participated in and the lives lost, but I honestly never held any real feelings for the lives affected by the military. I never truly pondered how the draft forced men into literal nightmares of destruction and chaos. Specifically, I never thought about how African-American men were forced to serve a country not made for us. I never truly appreciated the freedom I gained from their loss, which inspired the research question: What was it like to be a part of the military during such a racially insensitive yet demanding time for our country?

I met with Butch and Larry Johnson on their back patio on a sunny Wednesday afternoon. Both served in the United States Army. While they served at different times, their sentiments were the same regarding their introduction to the armed forces. “I did not like it, but I had to go; I had no choice.” Therefore, this was the fate of two young, African-American men whose country had drafted and thrust them out into the wilderness.

Fleeing the country was an option for both, but those thoughts were quickly pushed aside due to their investment in maintaining their “family’s pride.” They guided me through the agonizing yet physically rewarding journey of basic training. Both seemingly enjoyed this portion as they maxed out their fitness tests, but reality set in as the realization dawned on them what was to come. “They were just sizing you up! You know, saying this guy is physically fit, so we’ll send him to Vietnam,” which came to be the case for Larry Johnson. As soon as basic training ended, his assignment to fight in the Vietnam War had been planned. Instead, Butch Johnson was sent to Germany, where his challenges would not necessarily require physicality, but be loaded with an abundance of racial prejudice.

As our conversation continued and focused on the heated areas of their military career, the sun of that Wednesday afternoon reflected their sentiments by beginning to dim. Butch Johnson gave details of the daunting ride inside a truck towards his duty station. At one point, he said, “You’d be the last one they’d drop off, and it was so cold.” That lonesome ride in the cold, bitter winter left such an impact that he could recount it today. Similarly, while not explicitly stated, it was clear that the time spent in Vietnam was emotionally overwhelming for Larry Johnson. He recalled seeing “some of [his] friends die” and how “they were screaming so loud” that it stunned him. He remembers telling himself that daily, while in Vietnam, he had to “wake up and start shooting,” or his fate could have easily been altered. To further emphasize his experience, he gave an account of a man he tried to help, but instead was forced to watch as he took his last breath. This is only a fraction of the traumatic encounters that encompassed these two veterans’ time in the United States Army. This is only a snippet of the emotional anguish shared by so many. Although each had a different experience, both recited stories of adversity that they encountered. “We fought together on the field, but once back in the rear; they got beside themselves – they’d start thinking about [the way things were] back home.” This often made their time even more discouraging. After retiring, both Butch and Larry Johnson stated they “cannot stand red, white and blue.” Is that surprising? I never held any real sentiments for the military, though the feelings I developed throughout the interview were of pure antipathy. I asked how they could serve a country that had not adequately provided for them. Their response shone brightly with dignity. “Sometimes in life, you accept things that you don’t want to accept. But, [we] went and held [our] head high and kept [our] faith in God.” That sentiment exhibited the strength of those forced into similar circumstances. During those times, the military experienced a period of elevation, yet depression has had a lasting effect on those it forcibly grabbed. Through this research question, I hope those unaffected have less apathy and gain an understanding of the trials and tribulations of the veterans.

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