Thoughts on the Military Turning on its Citizens

I am a Vietnam veteran and served in the Air Force for four years. During the time that I went in, there was a draft. I didn’t want to go, but they did the lottery, and my number came up, so it was a definite that I was going to be pulled into the Army. At the time there was fear that all the black men were going to have to go out on the front lines in the Army, so my parents encouraged me to take the Air Force test. I did, and I scored high in mechanics. So when the letter came from the Army, it was too late—I was already in the Air Force.

Me joining the military had nothing to do with being a patriot, but it was the best experience that I’ve had in life. I’ve been around the world at least two times. I served in Thailand as a plane mechanic, working on B-52s and F-4s, bombers and fighter planes. Serving in other countries, being with people from all over the world, it was amazing. It showed me how I fit in to this world.

The United States is supposed to stand for freedom for all. When we go to other countries, it’s to make that freedom happen for them. In other parts of the world, governments were killing their own people. The people couldn’t stand up to their government, so we went over there to make change.

In other countries, they kill their own people for reasons I don’t always really understand. In my case, here in the United States, it’s real visible. You can see who we are. My people in the black community don’t get the same treatment. We’ve been talking about this for a long time. I know it’s kind of hard for people to believe racist violence is happening when they don’t experience it themselves, but now with George Floyd and others, everyone can finally see what’s happening because it’s on tape. When you put a camera out there and people can see, it changes things. That was true of the Vietnam War too. The cameras showed all the killing on TV, and people could see what was happening.

Imagine if that was your uncle and you saw him get killed on the TV, a hundred times a day. His family is seeing that over and over and over again. And I get to see someone who looks like my brothers, or my uncles, killed on TV over and over again. That is exhausting.

My father served in the Army and fought in the Korean War. He believed that his son would have a better life than him. I’d be able to get a better job, because better opportunities would be available, and the history of inequality would change and improve. But then we come to today, and his son is still experiencing the same things, and it’s difficult for me to see that my grandsons will have a better future than what I’ve experienced. It doesn’t look that way, and it doesn’t feel that way to them either. They still experience the same racism that I experience and that my father experienced. We still have to have that talk that all black guys give their sons and grandsons about how to handle themselves when a police officer pulls you over. You have to hope that the officer had a good day, and be submissive, and it’s demeaning. I think a lot of black kids don’t see a better future, and I don’t want them to be discouraged.

I keep hearing people beat the hell out of the Second Amendment, but then they ignore the first one. According to the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press or the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Every U.S. war has been fought to protect these freedoms for Americans, along with the right to exercise their rights.

Of course, I represent the Veterans Council in UAW Region 1, and not just myself. But being a veteran, I can say things now that I couldn’t say in active service about our leaders and what’s happening, and I feel it’s my duty to speak about it. I believe that the last thing these guys in the military right now want to see is their aunts and uncles out there protesting things they would be out there protesting themselves, and then be ordered by the President to go out and treat them like they’re the enemy. They’re not the enemy, they’re just exercising their rights. And they’re exercising their rights at the risk of all these other things that can happen, like violence, or COVID-19, and for something like this that they shouldn’t even still have to be out there protesting.

Some people, including the President of the United States, have stolen the whole message about the American flag. The flag is a symbol, and I know what it’s about. I do a flag folding ceremony several times each year, and I know what each fold stands for and I can explain it. When our Veterans Council attends funerals, I’m the one that reads off why we’re there for our comrades, and I tell the families that we honor the sacrifice that their loved ones made. I’m completely aware of all that the flag represents. But still I am with the guys when they take a knee, because the flag is for them also. It’s not just for the people who have gotten to go out and enjoy their rights and all the benefits of being an American all along. It’s also for the ones who haven’t been able to enjoy all that equally. The flag is for the protesters, too.

The aggressive language and signals from the Commander in Chief, along with his recent statement that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” brings no unity to Americans. Veterans fought for these rights for all Americans, and many service members died for them, so why can’t we enjoy them? Haven’t we paid enough? The police and the National Guard, their job is to protect and serve. The military is trained to attack the enemy. The American people exercising their rights to protest are not the enemy. There is no reason to call the military into this fight.

Carlton Pace
UAW Region 1 Veterans Council Chairman
And member of UAW Local 889