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African-American Soldier served as scout in Vietnam

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He saw shift in attitudes, treatment

By CATRINA FRANCIS
Gold Standard Senior Staff Writer
catrina.s.francis2.civ@mail.mil
Editor’s Note: This is the last part in a three-part series on Black History.
Since the Revolutionary War, African-Americans have proudly served the military and died on the battlefield. For some, joining the armed forces was done to break down stereotypes and for others, serving was a duty.
Joining for retired Command Sgt. Maj. Irvin Lyons Jr. meant leaving behind a $68, seven day per week soda-stacking job. It also meant meaningful employment.
When the Miami native left home in 1959 he headed north to Fort Knox, for basic training, advanced individual training and basic unit training. Lyons said during that time initial-Soldier training was done at one place and the unit would then head overseas, instead of individuals having a permanent change of station overseas. Lyons added by the time he completed training that changed and Soldiers began to PCS as individuals.
When the retired scout joined the Army he knew it would be a career.
“I had made up my mind (that) I would spend 30 years,” he said, “I asked (the) recruiter which job I can get and make the highest rank possible. He said, ‘a scout.’ I said, ‘sign me up.’”
Although Lyons was adamant about joining, his mother didn’t want him to join because she believed serving would be too dangerous.
“She didn’t know I had first enlisted, I knew how she felt,” explained Lyons. “She didn’t want me to leave home, (but) you can’t continue to live with your parents. We didn’t have a lot and didn’t want for anything. I have no regrets, (but) there were pitfalls along the way.”
Even though Lyons enlisted in 1959 after President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981 in 1948 which desegregated the armed forces, he said the Army was desegregated, but segregated within.
“White Soldiers didn’t like (being told what to do by African-American noncommissioned officers) at that time,” he said. “Second lieutenant was the highest ranking officer for (African-Americans) at that time.”
Lyons recalled having his squadron commander ask him to gather the other African-American Soldiers in the dining facility so he could inquire why there were problems within the unit.
“We discovered blacks weren’t getting promoted (in the same manner) as white Soldiers,” he recalled. “One unit took all the fluorescent light bulbs and threw them out the window. The treatment of black Soldiers led to the first sergeant and (squadron) commander being relieved.”
When that happened Lyons said things were better and the unit began to conduct promotion boards.
Although the 1960s were labeled a tumultuous time for the country, Lyons said there were still serious race relation issues during the 1970s. He pointed out that some white Soldiers resented African-American leaders. But, Lyons did encounter a few instances of racism during the ‘60s while spending six months at Fort Hood, Texas.
“Some outwardly showed (their dislike and) resentment,” he said. “The officers were very fair. I guess I didn’t see any discrimination because I was a senior NCO. The Fort Hood civilian community didn’t like Soldiers. If you went through Killeen or Temple, (Texas), they threw rocks at your car.”
Instead of hanging out in the communities outside the gate of Fort Hood, Lyons would spend time in Austin, Texas –a college town that he said didn’t have racial problems.
Although Europe treated African-Americans equally, especially Austria Lyons said, Soldiers encountered various forms of racism because white Soldiers told Germans African-Americans had tails, and many believed it to be true.
But Lyons said, “When you had a (German) friend, you had a friend.”
“If you could speak or attempt to speak (German) they would love you to death,” he said. “The only time I felt rejected is when (I)  met a civilian and they (asked) if you had a tail.”
Lyons also began to see the shift in how African-Americans were seen by others. He noticed that the uniform was respected more than who was wearing it. He also noticed the change in lieutenants and their ability to listen to NCOs.
“I remember in Vietnam and a lieutenant came out there with a manual,” he said, “(We said), ‘we are not doing that, you aren’t getting us killed.’ There were a lot racial problems in Vietnam.
“(There were a lot) of black (Soldiers) and you had to go on patrol and these guys were supposed to have your back. You were more worried about who’s in back of you instead of who’s in front of you.”
By the 1980s the Army began to change with the formulation of the Equal Opportunity Program and Lyons said things began to change and there weren’t any glaring problems with race relations. He added that promotion boards were now being conducted by the Department of the Army for senior NCOs.
“(Things) got better (in) the senior ranks,” Lyons said. “We saw a lot of black officers, first sergeants and senior NCOs.”
By the time Lyons had been in uniform for 30 years the Army had undergone changes, and many for the betterment of Soldiers. He also loved the time he served—with his brothers—in arms.
“I don’t regret it,” Lyons said. “If I had to do over again I would enlist, re-enlist and (spend) 30 years (in the Army). I would try to (spend) 35 years (in uniform). I was fortunate to meet new people and travel the world.”