A Marine Officer’s Answer to Feelings of Prejudice in the Ranks: “We’re All in the Same Boat Out Here”

It was 1968, and as a freshly-promoted Lieutenant in the United States Navy, I was transferred from Sandia Base, New Mexico as a Nuclear Weapons Instructor to shore duty near Yorktown, Virginia.  Assigned as Plant Supervisor of a nuclear weapons assembly plant in an underground bunker I supervised the retrofits and required maintenance to nuclear weapons received from ships going and coming from points in the Atlantic.

Before all that, I was Gunnery Officer of a ship anchored in Da Nang Harbor, Viet Nam.  Supporting Swift Boat and Coast Guard Cutter Operations in the Da Nang River, I had seen the early stages of the Viet Nam War where the conflict was beginning to heat up.  I was also part of the massive transfer of Marines and all their jeeps, tanks, and other gear on the heels of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident.  We took them and their equipment from San Diego to Da Nang where they fought in the field, the rice patties, and the countryside of Viet Nam.

But back in Virginia and in 1968 I rented a small, modest house on Deep Creek Road in Newport News where I drove to work each morning to the Naval Weapons Station in Yorktown.  One night I gassed up at a convenience store, and after filling up, I walked up to pay my bill inside.  Just as I reached for the doorknob the door opened suddenly, and a black man of medium build poured out of the opening and stumbled down the steps, using my shoulder as a balancing point.  He was maybe in his 40s, had a graying short beard, and wore jeans with holes and threads unraveling at the knees.  He smiled at me and apologized for stumbling into my path.  The attendant inside said the black man was drunk, to please pay him no mind.

“He’s got no home.”  he continued.  “He lives in some wrecking yard cars across the highway, just to keep warm on these cold nights like this, I guess.”

Suddenly we heard a loud thump outside.  It sounded ominous.  It was.  Just 2 minutes after I encountered the teetering black man, he had tried to step up on the curb across the street, and stumbled back into an oncoming car.  We ran outside to see that he had been hit and became airborne for maybe a distance of 70 feet or more down the same side of the paved road.  Only his shoes marked the point of impact.  He had been knocked out of his own shoes.

He did not stir, nor was he breathing.  The store attendant took his wrist and checked his pulse.  Nothing.  He ran back inside and called an ambulance anyway.  It arrived in minutes and took him away.  I told the ambulance team about his shoes and they took them.  It was plain that they knew the man was dead.

No warning.  How sudden.  How final.  How terminal.  The man had touched me on the shoulder as he made his way to an early death.  He would not have to bother about keeping warm any more.  Or finding food.  Or booze to kill the pain of being poor and without means.  Or help from government, a church, or his fellow man.

The next morning I bought a paper before entering the fenced, secure area where I worked.  The Obits identified him as human who was hit by a car on Warwick Blvd. and killed instantly.  Black, homeless, it was him, alright.  His last name was Digges, it said.

I forgot his first name.  Years later I tried looking it up on Ancestry.com SSI Death Index.  Nothing came back.  Maybe he did not have a Social Security number.  Maybe he never worked.  But doubtless, he was not on food stamps or welfare.  The police went to his lodgings in the abandoned car that was Mr. Digges’ home.  Nothing to collect.  The store attendant told me Digges had panhandled people for nickels and dimes to buy cheap wine.  Looking back, I wished he had tarried to ask me for money.  Perhaps he would not have been in that window of time that saw him die on the street.

The image of Mr. Digges in death haunted me for years.  I saw the deep immobility of him lying on the ground, knocked out of his shoes with patches of black skin showing through the gaping holes in his white socks.

That was before social programs tried to help the poor, the broken, the less-fortunate of the human species, and if you wanted a life you had to stay drunk to forget who you had become and sleep in abandoned cars in a junkyard.  Unless you passed judgment on your fellow human beings that everybody should work or suffer the pangs of being lazy.

I have disagreed with many of the decisions on policy (or lack of) when it comes to our president, Barack Obama.  Yet if one is fair and not totally eat up with partisan talking points to discredit, demonize, and destroy a person, he can surely give the devil his due.  I am pleased to know that President Obama recently came out for raising the federal minimum wage to $9.00 an hour.  Regardless of all the political posturing, Obama came down on the side of helping those less fortunate to have a better life, a better existence.  Without rendering judgment.  Or looking down his nose at those less fortunate.  Bravo, Mr. President.  You seem to be making the statement that you care.  That we must all give a little and pull together.

Who among us at some time has not been up against poverty with no food, no alcohol, no gasoline or other of life’s inevitable needs that we have loosely labeled necessities?

I have found that those who criticize most severely, e.g., the government extending a helping hand to the poor are those who are favored with abundance and plenty.  Sure, they will pose for photo ops where they raise money in black tie and evening gown silk for charities.  But raise the minimum wage?  Well, I never, you might hear them say in their own closed-conversations at River Oaks bridge tables and country clubs everywhere.  If they really want to help why do so many of the rich, and devout Christian-rich back away from social programs that might take the poor’s standard of living up a half a notch?  Just what is the problem that so many would argue that a minimum wage of $9.00 an hour would hairlip the Treasury?  Or our own pocketbooks?

I have read and agree with many of the points in Ayn Rand’s great book, Atlas Shrugged and how everyone must help themselves, that perhaps it might be the only moral way to our salvation as a species, and certainly as individuals.  But I am still reading and looking for a treatment in her works on how to deal with the unethical stealing we have seen when government takes bribes from Military Industrial Complex corporations for exorbitant borrowing and spending for wars some presidents have started without reason.  Without conscience. With no other purpose but to see the pockets lined of their campaign contributors.   Not for the welfare of America, but the pocketbooks of perverse and wrongly self-proclaimed Capitalists.  They are crooks in the end.  They know it, and we know it.  And we feel helpless.  Like second-class citizens in a “democracy.”  The cost at every turn of the present fiscal dilemma is our own financial implosion and self-destruction.  The President and Congress are not subjected to the throes of sequestering as are the rest of us.  Oh, and by the way does it matter that presidents and Congress have said openly that they will opt to keep their own more lucrative healthcare plans rather than take up Obama Care as they have commanded every other American to do?

When I served in Viet Nam, a United States Marine I had known for years, much braver than I, fought in the Battle of Hue City during the Tet Offensive.  He won the Silver Star for bravery and had multiple Purple Hearts for being wounded.  The last battle saw him wounded and medical evacuated out of there forever.  He lives on as one of the bravest, most honorable men I ever knew.  He lives on as a testimonial of a Viet Nam War where he and his fellow Marines saved many innocent lives of Viet Nam citizens who were being massacred by the North Vietnamese prior to the Marine rescue of Hue City.

This splendid Marine who fought in the jungle for 13 months told me of the many human tragedies of the war.  You had to work together against the Viet Cong and the formidable North Vietnamese Regular soldiers.  His company had Marines of every ethnicity, blacks, latinos, orientals, and whites.  There was a time each group complained as a group to the Company Lieutenant that they were being treated badly and discriminated against.  The Lieutenant asked them to tell him what they needed  in order to feel equal and decent about themselves as combat Marines.  Most of the complaints were that at times each group felt that members of the other ethnic groups would slur or belittle them as human beings.

At times all groups felt discriminated against and just plain bad about who they were fighting for and why.  The Lieutenant had them assemble one day for a talk.  It was short and sweet.

“Regardless of race or color, we are all the same out here.” he told the men.  “Black, white, red, or yellow, we are all in the same boat out here.”

The men listened.

“We must pull together and support each other without petty differences if we are to survive.  There is no option.  If we all survive we must do this and put aside petty feelings before the VC picks us off from the jungle.”

They began to fight as one.  The Battle of Hue City saw us victorious.  It appears that the Company Lieutenant gave them the proper perspective and will to cooperate to where everybody wins.

It seems that President Obama is trying to pull together with all Americans when he proposes that the federal minimum wage be raised from $7.25 to $9.00 an hour.  Will those who have opposed this measure still fight it?  Probably.  But maybe some of them will see the light and recognize that nobody can live on even $9.00 per hour.  But it is a step in the right direction.  It is in the interest of the common man.  Like Mr. Digges, perhaps.  Perhaps he would be alive today if he had had a decent wage, a different job, and a real house to get him through the cold on those long, lonely nights.  After all, we’re all in the same boat out here.