“I’m gonna go UA,” said my white shipmate, while I was in the Navy (UA short for Unauthorized Absence, a very serious infraction in the US Government). “Can I stay at your apartment for a while?” A young, naïve, black sailor at the time, I said, “sure, why not?” It didn’t mean much to me in that moment, because I didn’t actually care about the guy either way. We both knew he’d be in trouble. But he seemed much less concerned with it than people like me on the ship, with black on our skin.
This incident was forgotten to me, as it’s been ten years since I was in uniform. Looking back, now, though, the memories come in floods. Memories of a pattern I noticed in the military, ones upsetting but not unexpected. And a recent study showed that black troops are twice as likely to be punished as white ones. Yes. This is that kind of upsetting, that high level of dismay and anger that people across the color spectrum can all relate to.
“Hey, Willie!” I called out the nickname of a black friend of mine, who looked like a shorter version of Will Smith. He was rushing up one of the ladderwells that led to the Captain’s office. “What’s going on?”
“I dunno,” Willie shrugged, a half-smile painted across his lips. “I got some kind of meeting to attend. I ain’t too worried. I should be fine.” He hustled up the rest of the stairs. And one week later I learned he landed in the military brig.
“I got served bread and water, bro,” a noticeably thinner Willie told me one day, after that time I’d last spoken to him, 3 months prior. My mouth dropped and I was speechless for 30 seconds as I embraced him like a long-lost brother.
A disturbing practice still in use and probably as old as walking the plank, serving sailors bread and water for every meal for 30 days in a military brig was a punishment I’d heard about often, but never personally knew someone who’d gone through it.
According to Willie, that “meeting” he’d had with the Captain was no meeting at all, but a Captain’s Mast, a form of non-judiciary punishment that is issued for minor infractions to the UCMJ (Uniformed Code of Military Justice). Unfortunately, Willie’s were greater than just a regular Captain’s Mast. And come to think of it, that same Commanding Officer, who happened to look like Jim Carrey’s Fire-marshal Bill, had said some very questionable things to me before. He’d called me “homeboy” and asked me if I was from “Da Hood.” He had a habit of doing such things with other individuals, also.
“I was accused of stealing electrical equipment, which is all government-owned,” a teary-eyed Willie admitted. “It’s a felony. But I didn’t do it. Never did. Two white guys who had already been charged pointed the finger at me as an accomplice. They always hated me.” I could confirm this. They hated black people. I’d always see the two muttering under their breaths when passing black shipmates they had particular disdain for.
To make matters worse, it was widely known the two men were heavy underage drinkers. One guy had been arrested while swerving on base, with a pistol under his seat and open-containers in the backseat. He was arrested and his mother ordered to pick him up. No charges. A slap-on-the-wrist. After all…he was only a “20 year old kid,” I heard some older men in his division say. All Caucasian, and seemingly all had had runs-in with the law but no harsh judgements.
I was lucky enough to have never gone through such a trial. But I do remember my father speaking of his times in the service, and his father’s tour of duty. Not only do blacks not get treated fairly, still, apparently we can’t even get punished fairly. And that’s a weird thing for a person to say, but fair punishment in the service is sort of an odd thing, when no punishment at all or at least equality in general is on the table. But, here we are, not too far from where we were, decades ago. Here’s to hoping that’ll change really soon.