Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel often views events through the lens of his experience as an Army sergeant in Vietnam, and he did so again last week in tribute to an apostle of non-violence and ardent opponent of the war –Martin Luther King, Jr.
King “was a man of vision, a man of passion, a man of commitment,” Hagel said of the civil rights leader who was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn., on April 4, 1968.
Hagel, who was wounded twice serving with the Army’s 9th Infantry Division in Vietnam in 1967-68, was joined on the stage at the Pentagon’s auditorium last Thursday by an African-American Purple Heart veteran of Iraq, Army Col. Gregory D. Gadson.
Gadson, who lost both legs above the knee on his third tour in Iraq, exemplified King’s commitment to selfless service, Hagel said.
“Your sacrifices, I think we all agree, define the power of the human spirit and we are especially honored to have you here today, on this day, as we celebrate Martin Luther King Day,” Hagel told Gadson, who now serves as the garrison commander of Fort Belvoir, Va.
Hagel, who was serving with his brother, Tom, in Vietnam when King was assassinated, recalled the impact on his unit.
“Everyone was silent,” Hagel said. The reaction to King’s death threatened to deepen a racial divide that was already hurting the morale and effectiveness of the troops, Hagel said, but a young lieutenant stepped forward to stress that they were soldiers first.
“I recall the courage of our company commander in Vietnam, Lt. Jerome Johnson,” Hagel said. In the infantry at the time, it was not unusual in the Army and Marine Corps to have a lieutenant in command of a company, normally a captain’s billet.
Johnson “was a 23-year-old African-American from Chicago who was drafted into the Army. He went to OCS (Officer Candidate School). Soon thereafter he was in Vietnam. His older brother had been killed in Vietnam the year before.”
“He made clear to all of us that this was everybody's fight, that we were going to fight together, that we were all Americans,” Hagel said. “Today, 45 years later, Lt. Johnson’s words still ring very true.”
The bill establishing Martin Luther King Day was signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1983 but not before a heated battle in the Senate. The late Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., led a filibuster against the bill, citing King’s opposition to the war in Vietnam and his alleged “action-oriented Marxism.”
King spoke out most forcefully against the Vietnam war in his seminal “Time To Break Silence” sermon at Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967.
King pleaded to “stop the madness” but he also distanced himself from some in the anti-war movement whose scorn for the war extended to the troops sent to fight it.
“I am as deeply concerned about our own troops there as anything else,” King said. “For it occurs to me that what we are submitting them to in Vietnam is not simply the brutalizing process that goes on in any war where armies face each other and seek to destroy.”
King warned of the emotional conflict that many troops would face when they returned from Vietnam. “We are adding cynicism to the process of death, for they must know after a short period there that none of the things we claim to be fighting for are really involved,” King said.
In his remarks at the Pentagon, Hagel said that “The rights that make America free, rights that this Department protects and defends, come with heavy responsibilities like taking care of our people, looking out for one another, and lending a hand to those in need. Martin Luther King knew that.”
To stress the point, Hagel quoted King’s words: “Everybody can be great because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.”