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COLUMN: Martin Luther King, Jr.'s death in Vietnam

By: Joe Barrera
January 13, 2018 Updated: January 13, 2018 at 4:10 am
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"I knew they would kill him, I knew they would try to stop him - and they did!" Sgt. Holden, our assistant platoon sergeant, held the tiny transistor radio to his ear. He listened to the news on Armed Forces Radio and cursed under his breath. We had just been told to "saddle up and move out!" but for some inexplicable reason we stayed put. To take the heavy load of the 70-pound rucksacks off our backs we sat on the ground and endured the eternal "hurry up and wait" of the Army.

It was sunny and hot, but that's nothing new in the Central Highlands. There was news on the radio. Bad news. I saw a large clear crystal teardrop course down Sgt. Holden's cheek. A tough guy Sgt. Holden was, but now he cried. Everybody looked away. We didn't want to see him weep. The tears glistened on his dark African-American face.

We were tired, exhausted is a better word. No sleep for two nights. The night before we had popped an ambush on a whole column of North Vietnamese troops. The Claymore mines, the grenades, the machine guns and M16s had done their work. We found the NVA's rucksacks, their long cloth tubes full of rice, and their AK47s where they had dropped them in their terror. The Communists had run like mad, all the way back to Laos, we figured. That was the best thing, when they just ran away. Nobody wanted to get into a firefight, the enemy fighting back. But they had dragged away their dead and wounded. They almost always did that. We had escaped unscathed.

The morning calmness was ominous. It was April 5, 1968, in Vietnam. Eight-thousand miles away it was still April 4, and American cities were burning. The police and National Guard were shooting looters in the streets.

In Washington, President Lyndon Johnson called in the troops to protect the White House. The 82nd Airborne flew in from Fort Bragg and M60 machine guns ringed the nation's Capitol. In New York, Mayor John Lindsay patrolled the streets of Harlem with a bullhorn, urging residents to remain calm. They jeered him, but Lindsay bravely persisted and New York was largely spared the rioting. But in Vietnam it was peaceful even if tense, the memory of the skirmish the night before in the beautiful green forest near Laos fading. We realized that there was another war going on, much deadlier than the one we were fighting. Much deadlier, not in casualties, but in the death of the spirit, the death of what held us together as Americans, what united us as soldiers, alone in the remote jungle.

Everybody in the platoon was somber. The Anglos and Latinos gave the black soldiers a lot of space. We could see their grief. And their anger. They seemed to carry their weapons just a bit too affectionately this morning. What would they do? Then Pablo, the big brown-skinned Chicano from California who had toiled in the fields until he was drafted, broke out his package. A couple of days before, the resupply helicopters had brought C-rations, ammo, all the usual stuff, but most importantly, mail from home. Pablo had received a box from his mother. It was wrapped in brown paper. The paper had large dark spots on it. Now he opened it. A powerful smell filled the air, redolent of Mexican kitchens. Pablo passed around his treasure. He went first to the black soldiers. They looked inside the box. Tentative smiles appeared on their faces. Chicharrones - fried pork bellies - down home Mexican food, the grease stains soaking the brown paper covering the box. Chicharrones. Not chitlins but close enough. The belly of the pig, not the chitterling intestines, but familiar enough. Pablo passed the box to the southern Appalachian soldiers. The white country boys smiled. They recognized the pork cracklings.

Pablo came to me, his Emiliano Zapata moustache drooping. "No thanks," I said. "I don't eat pork." "What's the matter, you a Jew or something?" "Spiritual Jew," I said. The rest of them were chewing the pork skins, happily munching away. Poor blacks, poor Mexican Americans, poor whites, the downtrodden of America, but the defenders of America. And me, raised on Israelite lore by the Irish nuns of my south Texas Catholic school. The martyr, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., would have understood and gladly joined in.

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Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.

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