Remember the Soldiers Who Have Labored in Our Fields

Palaima: Remember the Soldiers Who Have Labored in Our Fields

Austin American-Statesman September 2, 2003, p. A9

I owe him an apology and I didn’t even catch his name. But we all owe him and others like him an apology, at least in the original ancient Greek sense of an explanation, so here is mine to one eloquently passionate Chicano Vietnam veteran and the 83,000 other soldados who served our country in Vietnam.

I spent Monday evening in the studio at KLRU on the UT Austin campus where Austin City Limits is filmed. The set gives the illusion of our rich and modern urban center at night, with artificially lighted twinkling stars, a capitol dome and corporate high rises.

This was a particularly ironic setting to preview Charley Trujillo’s and Sonya Rhee’s documentary film in the PBS P.O.V (Point of View) series that told the story of poor Chicano cotton field workers from Corcoran, California in the 1960’s whose only taste of bright lights would soon be night flares and the flashes of artillery fire and the evil beauty of napalm trails.

The event, organized by KLRU, included a lively discussion afterwards kicked off by commentary from Dee Esparza, a psychiatric mental health specialist in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder at our local Vet center, Paul Berdoff of the VA Outpatient Clinic, Anthony B. Moore of the Texas Veterans Commission, Gil Rodriguez, the immediate past state commander of the state American GI Forum (founded by Hector P. Garcia to help Hispanic American vets get their due benefits) and Thomas Cruz, who handles veterans affair issues in congressman Lloyd Doggett’s office.

The film focuses on five boys who went from working the fields, “irrigating, chopping, weeding and picking cotton” to wading in rice paddies. And it made clear what was unique to their experience among Vietnam vets..

There are no high-rises in Soldados. The film opens by showing the modified tents in which families lived as they did brutally hard work in the fields, slave work really, a small taste of which as a boy gave Lyndon Johnson a lifelong respect for education as a way out of those fields and a lifelong commitment to try to eradicate poverty and inequality.

You want poverty. Then consider that child care for one vet was his momma dragging him along on the long sack into which she put the cotton she picked in the broiling sun. Again remember that boys (and girls) fight our wars then and now. They were taken away from close-knit families, from strong Roman Catholic upbringings that instilled values of duty and obedience and a strong belief that killing another human being was a mortal sin, from the proud civilian machismo of young Hispanic males coming into their prime, from an overwhelming sense of being low-rung outsiders in an Anglo-dominated society and economy.

Their comments about their war experience have undertones of anger and resentment and resignation about how the world has used them. They also have ironic humor and the kind of deep-sighing awareness of the human condition that middle-age brings to anyone who is even halfway alert to life’s perverse twists and turns and incorrigible injustices.

Their machismo led them again and again to volunteer for the most dangerous assignments, like walking point. Their deep religious beliefs caused moral pain when they “dropped their first guy” in combat, and then the second and then the third. And the guilt that comes from feeling like God, in having such power of life and death. The realization that discrimination even prevails in the armed services. The sudden awareness that they were farm boys fighting Vietnamese farm boys and napalming and shelling and burning farmers’ villages.

“Killing is easy, but living with it is hard.”

“We should have a draft so everyone can do their duty.”

“Our new second lieutenant had dropped out of a seminary. You don’t want a priest leading you unless he’s a mean one.”

“My Vietnam experience prepared me to be a prison guard [in the Corcoran maximum security prison where Charles Manson and Sirhan Sirhan are kept].”

“Here. You want to see my farm worker permit. [Mr. Trujillo plucks out the glass eye that he has because of a shrapnel wound and holds it to the law officer who was giving him a hard time].”

All that pain and all that anger, delivered in easy tones by 55-year-old men with smiles. And I missed it.

Lourdes Flores, of Texas Rural legal Aid, and I both complained that such documentaries never show the many completely ruined men and women. And we are right. But all the commentators, except for Dee Esparza, stressed what veterans could get, despite closings of hospitals, despite cut backs in benefits, despite reams of red tape.

When Tom Cruz spoke of how congressman Doggett was fighting hard to restore benefits to old levels, we should all have risen in mass apology. Where were we when the benefits for these brave men were cut in the first place.

Watch Soldados on KLRU Tuesday, September 2, and get an education in 26 minutes.

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Tom Palaima teaches war and violence studies in the College of Liberal Arts at UT Austin.