Service Reflections: Retired soldier recalls overcoming bigotry, prejudice in Army

Service Reflections: Retired soldier recalls overcoming bigotry, prejudice in Army

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MSG Felipe De Leon Brown
Status: U.S. Army Veteran
Service Years: 1967 - 1992


Please describe who or what influenced your decision to join the Army.

Phase I completed

I was four years old when my cousin Butch returned from Korea. He had earned a CIB, and he was a paratrooper. One look at his uniform with the spit-shined jump boots decided for me that I wanted to be like him when I grew up. Fifteen years later, I enlisted.

When I was in high school, young men were either going to take Physical Ed or Military Science (i.e., be cadets). I wasn't athletic. My former classmates ostracized me because of my mixed ethnicity and appearance. I chose the Cadet Corps.

I tried out for the Precision Drill Platoon in the first month, was selected, and would be a member of the platoon for the rest of my high school experience. I learned all the Manual of Arms for the M-1 Garand, the Guidon, and the Color Guard. That would come in handy when I enlisted.

When I enrolled in college the first time, I also enrolled in the ROTC. I tried out for the National Society of Pershing Rifles, completed the candidate (pledge) program, and was accepted. I also became a member of its precision drill platoon.

Being a member of the cadet corps cemented my desire to be a soldier. I had learned how to wear the uniform properly, the manual of arms, rifle marksmanship, map reading, and so much more.


Whether you were in the service for several years or as a career, please describe the direction or path you took. What was your reason for leaving?


When I first enlisted, I wasn't sure if I would complete my duty or make a career out of being a soldier. Despite what I experienced in the reception station at Fort Polk, I wasn't going to be a mediocre soldier. I enlisted to be a basic combat medic (91A), but during Basic Training, the Company Commander convinced me and others to apply for OCS. I was diverted to Infantry (11B) AIT.

After AIT, I reported to Fort Benning, GA, and began Infantry OCS. Towards the end of the 10th week, a 2LT who had been abusing his position to harass me unfairly from the very first day that he saw me really crossed the line. I decked him. I found out later that he was racist and would have probably been fragged had the broken jaw he sustained hadn't kept him from shipping over.

Six weeks after being kicked out of OCS, I graduated from Jump School as the DHG of my class with orders for the Special Forces Training Group and the SFQC. I had volunteered to take the SF Special Battery Test in order to not be available for the "Hey, you" roster. I passed it. (Then) MOH winner 1LT Charles Q. Williams pinned on my "blood" wings as he said, "Welcome to SF." There was no way that I would let a MOH winner down. My first assignment after the SFQC was the 5th SFGA in Viet Nam.

I completed my enlistment of three years and returned to the states with the idea of going back to college. The civilian community's social environment convinced me that I wasn't ready to become a civilian again. I reenlisted and spent the next 22+ years as a Soldier. Retirement was earlier than I had planned because of a major Reduction in Force after Desert Storm. While I hadn't planned on retiring as early as I did, it allowed me to return to college earlier.


If you participated in any military operations, including combat, humanitarian, and peacekeeping operations, please describe those which made a lasting impact on you and, if life-changing, in what way?

6th Co, 5th MSFCA

I reported to the Nha Trang Mike Force on 1 Nov 68. After being assigned a room in the team house, I went to the team bar in search of a soda. The moment I walked in the door, I felt like I could have been entering a "whites only" club in the 50s and 60s South. On the walls were "George Wallace for President" and a large Confederate battle flag. The eyes that stared at me had the same intensity of disdain that I had seen before in the South. I decided that I would not be spending too much time where I was not welcomed. However, the "B" Detachment Operations Sgt and Senior Communications Supervisor welcomed me with open arms. Four weeks later, I would jump into my very first combat operation.

Both of the first two operations that I participated in were life-changing.

The very first was an airborne assault into the Seven Mountains region of Viet Nam. For most, the hope was to be awarded combat wings. No POC was to be allowed that possibility. My supervisor was scheduled to go home on an extended leave, and I replaced him. Being viewed as an Afro-Hispanic meant that I was not supposed to be there. I was not on the original manifest (I was added to an amended manifest afterward) and was chewed out on the DZ after establishing communications (commo) with higher and sent back to our HQ. The whole experience left me with a nasty taste in the mouth.

The next operation was less than a month later, and it was an air assault into the Dong Bo mountains west of Nha Trang. That was the scarier of the two because we were being fired on as we flew into the LZ. It made me question my sanity, and it drove home the fact that I was no longer participating in war games but rather, "the real deal." However, it also removed all doubt that a POC was not yet welcomed in the outfit. I was attached to the company that would go on the operation so as to not be in the compound while a white MSG married his Vietnamese sweetheart. There was already one other African-American in the outfit who would deploy on the same operation. All the Montagnards who were not involved in the operation were restricted to their barracks area.

Because of what I had experienced in my childhood and youth, along with the values that my folks had instilled in me, I was determined not to be guilty of the bigotry and prejudice that I was still experiencing. What I perceived was nothing like I had envisioned before going to Viet Nam. At the same time that the racists were ostracizing me in my unit, I was also welcomed into the Montagnards community. I began to spend more and more time with people I felt accepted while avoiding other American soldiers. I felt more comfortable with the indigenous people of Indochina.


Did you encounter any situation during your military service when you believed there was a possibility you might not survive? If so, please describe what happened and what was the outcome.

70 Ka Tum Vietnam Cong Hoa

In the middle of January 1973, I was on a detachment crossing a 6,600 ft+ ridge in the coldest night in that region (-16 degrees F). We were traveling without our snowshoes because the acting Det CO refused to accept the Tm Sgt's (a Korean and Viet Nam vet) suggestion that we do so. I was carrying one of the heaviest rucks and, around midnight, began to hallucinate. I wanted to take off my parka and shirt, lay down, and take a nap. I don't remember anything after that except waking up the next morning in an old miner's hut between two of my fellow teammates. I had experienced hypothermia.

I was awakened to guide the Jr Commo Sgt in setting up the antenna and transmitting our SITREP, which I encrypted. The moment that we started transmitting, we were answered with no delay. Higher had not heard from us the night before and was relieved to hear our signal and to know that we had all survived.

That scared the crap out of me.

When we returned to Bragg, the acting Det CO wanted to relieve me. After the Company CO heard everyone's account, he immediately relieved the idiot and asked the Bn CO to reassign him. I understand that the reassignment happened because that captain was not a good fit for the detachment that I was in. Our company commander didn't mention to higher than the idiot had put the entire team in danger.


Of all your duty stations or assignments, which one do you have fondest memories of and why? Which was your least favorite?

70 5th Special Forces Daily SITREP

I have truly fond memories of several of my assignments. The one that I have the fondest memory of has to be with the Special Forces Schools, Communications-Electronics Committee (COMMEL), Fort Bragg, NC.

When I was first assigned to COMMEL, I was asked what I would like to do. I chose the IMC Lab because I knew that most SF Communications Sergeants found it boring and that I wouldn't have to compete with anybody. In less than four months, I became the NCOIC of all International Morse Code (IMC) instruction for the entire Special Operations Community and would remain so for the rest of seven years. My primary goal was to develop a program that would produce more advanced IMC qualified operators. I challenged all candidates to meet or surpass my standards and, in the process, doubled the successful completion rate. We members of COMMEL in that era were like brothers, tight-knit, and mutually supportive.

A close second has to be my last assignment in the Panama Canal Zone at Fort Sherman before my retirement. I was the JOTC Operations Sgt and, as such, had full authority to assign training area and facility use as well as the use of the Weapons ranges with the Atlantic Range NCOIC. I also led classes in self-defense for the community family members.

Several assignments were less than pleasant, but Viet Nam's least favorite was at Ka Tum, Tay Ninh Province. Ka Tum (aka Ka-Boom) was an isolated camp about 8 km from the Cambodian-Vietnamese border. I had already established a reputation for being one of the best Commo Sergeants in the country. I was assigned to the camp to establish a more reliable commo. The first thing that I saw on arrival (on UH-1) was a sign over one of the entrances with a confederate flag painted on it. Of all the US personnel assigned to the detachment, I was never given a bunk in the team house. Instead, I had to sleep in the dispensary the first night and find space in a bunker normally used by interpreters from then on. The entire time that I was at the camp, I was assured that I was not welcomed by any with the exception of the Senior Medic.

My first tour of duty in Viet Nam was very unpleasant, not because of the combat that I experienced but because of the blatant and often overt racism. My second tour was 200% better because when I was reassigned to the Nha Trang Mike Force again, the welcome was universal. I wasn't there a week, and already I was on another combat operation.

Good things have a habit of ending sooner than we want, however, and 5th Group was closing down in less than a year after my return. At the end of my fourth month back in the Country, we who had six months or more before the end of our tours were beginning to receive orders for other assignments.

I was sent to Dong Ba Thin to be a member of the first detachment to train one of the first Battalions of the newly formed "Forces Armees Nationales Khmers." I would complete my second tour as the detachment Commo Sgt and instructor. When I presented my first class, Basic Map Reading, I surprised my teammates because they didn't know beforehand that I also spoke Khmer (Cambodian) and French. The Cambodian soldiers followed me for the entire block of instruction because of the immediate rapport that I had established. That rapport lasted throughout their training and the rest of my tour.


From your entire military service, describe any memories you still reflect back on to this day.

Maintaining rapport

Graduating from jump school and the SF "Q" course showed me that I could achieve any goal that I went for as long as the challenges were fair and just. All of my instructors were true professionals.

Experiencing combat several times and surviving showed me that I could conquer fear.

Performing my duties with honor and integrity while being subjected to racism and ethnic bias did not weaken but rather strengthened my personal sense of fairness and code of ethics. I decided not to allow the bias or bigotry that others visited on me to define me as a person. Instead, I chose to follow a path that would make my parents proud of me for my integrity, sincerity, and passion.

Training 18E and Navy UDT candidates and knowing that my efforts would significantly contribute to the US Army 1st Special Forces and the US Navy SEALS motivated me to give 100%. The successful completion rate doubled. My success as an instructor gave me the notion that I could become a teacher after retirement.

As the Protocol NCOIC for one year with USASO was rewarding because of working with the Diplomatic Corps and senior Panamanian authorities in Panama. I used my native language every day (and) my uniform consisted of a guayabera, slacks, and leather shoes.

When I returned to Fort Bragg, I was assigned to the then 1st SOCOM (Abn), DCSPER, as the Plans & Ops Div SGM. I would spend the next two years representing the DCSPER from time to time and addressing issues related to the 1st Special Forces Regiment becoming a separate and independent branch within the Army TOE.

My years as a soldier allowed me to develop habits and skills that would serve me very well during the more than two decades I would spend in the public school classroom after retiring from Active Service.


What professional achievements are you most proud of from your military career?

The two awards that I am most proud of are my basic parachute badge and my Special Forces tab. I earned my wings as the Distinguished Honor Graduate and the "S" suffix (later, SF tab) on my MOS along with other candidates just as capable or more than I.

The first time I stood guard mount at the JFKCSW, I was selected as General's Orderly. I hadn't even started SF training and was already becoming known as a knowledgeable soldier.

Although I had long beforehand chosen not to compete against but rather cooperate with my classmates in the Special Forces Operations & Intelligence Course, I graduated as the Honor Graduate.

Promotion to SFC and later to MSG were especially significant because of factors that were not in my favor. I had not been selected to attend either of the requisite courses (i.e., BNCOC and ANCOC). I suspect that I was granted meritorious promotions in both instances. Also, I was promoted both times during the first month that promotions took place.

Selection by the USARSO Command Sergeant Major as the Protocol NCOIC. I would spend the next year working directly with the Diplomatic Corps and Panamanian government authorities and coordinating DA officials' official visits.

Selection by the Command Sergeant Major, 1st SOCOM (Abn), and the DCSPER SGM to be the DCSPER Plans & Operations Division SGM.

Selection by the Fort Sherman Command Sergeant Major as the Jungle Operations Training Center Operations Sergeant.

Although my promotion to MSG was the pinnacle of my advancement, I am most proud of having been able to serve my nation with honor in the capacities that I was selected for during my last six years of active service.


Of all the medals, awards, formal presentations, and qualification badges you received, or other memorabilia, which one is the most meaningful to you and why?

Medals-Both MSMs. The first because of the personal efforts that I put in to contribute to the SFS mission. The second, on my retirement, is because of all the years of service despite often not being recognized. I was recommended for the LOM award in both cases, but the appellate authority downgraded it because of my rank. No surprise.

My Basic Parachute Badge because MOH recipient (then) 1LT Charles Q. Williams pinned my blood wings on me. My SF Tab is proof that drive is more important than physical strength.


Which individual(s) from your time in the military stand out as having the most positive impact on you and why?

SFODA-504, 5th SFGA, 1st SF

MG Michael "Iron Mike" Healy, CSM Arnold Beckermann, SGM Will Griffin, CSM Galen "Pappy" Kittleson, CSM Donald "Pete" Wingrove, SGM Joel Schenckleberger, MSG Michael Simpson, MSG Benny Phillips, MSG Alex Terrazas, MSG James Matthews, and COL Richard Ballard.

While there were several others, the eleven I mention had the most impact on me because each of them not only saw virtues in me that many others refused to acknowledge, but they also inspired me to be the best that I could be and encouraged me to drive on when others wanted to hold me back.

MSG Simpson guided me in preparing instruction as we trained members of FANK. When I reported to SF Schools, he wanted me to become an instructor on the Operations Committee. The SFS CSM knew me as a top-notch radio operator from Viet Nam, and my fate was sealed. I was assigned to the COMMEL Committee.

(Then) COL Healy first met me at the B-55 stand down. He asked me about my language aptitude and skills. (I already had learned five besides Spanish when he met me). He never forgot the encounter. When he returned to the SF community as its CG, he asked if I still spoke the languages I had learned in Indochina. I answered, "yes." He later recognized me in front of the command as an example of one of the most important skills that any SF soldier needs to acquire: the command of several languages besides English.


List the names of old friends you served with, at which locations, and recount what you remember most about them. Indicate those you are already in touch with and those you would like to make contact with.

1980, SFS, IMC Lab

William Swick and I were roommates during the "Q" course. We reconnected 51 yrs after I graduated from the course. We were like brothers then, and we're like brothers now. The rest of my former roommates whose names I remembered have passed away.

I've also re-established contact with Terry Cadenbach, Robert Pryor, John Melvin, Lee Ratterree, and Russ Norcross.

I cannot get in touch with (then) SGT Johnny King, whom I served as a member of 5th MSFCA during the period Jun 1970 to Nov 1970.

I also have had no luck in locating (then) SGT Richard Munoz from 1973 through 1974.


Can you recount a particular incident from your service, which may or may not have been funny at the time, but still makes you laugh?

There were many humorous moments, but none that I can remember that still makes me laugh.


What profession did you follow after your military service, and what are you doing now? If you are currently serving, what is your present occupational specialty?

After retiring from the Army, I became a high school teacher and have retired from that vocation after 22 years. I spend most days reading, writing, and listening to relaxing music. I read the Bible every morning and practice meditation. I am a homebody and take pride in keeping the home that my wife and I made for us "Ready for Inspection."


What military associations are you a member of, if any? What specific benefits do you derive from your memberships?

I am a Legacy Life Member of Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and the National Society of Pershing Rifles. VFW keeps me abreast of current developments in veteran services, trends, events, and military history. I am currently considering membership in the Special Forces Association.


In what ways has serving in the military influenced the way you have approached your life and your career? What do you miss most about your time in the service?

I keep an organized and clean home. My career as a teacher was with excellent attendance, taking care of my personal health, and taking pride in my appearance. I set an example not only for my former students but also for my former colleagues. My years as a Special Forces instructor accustomed me to a much more comprehensive, thorough preparation of lesson plans and instruction for the courses I taught. It also instilled in me the desire to always seek to be the best I could be at my craft. Being an NCO taught me how to interact with my colleagues professionally and empathize with those I led and our students. Being a member of an SF detachment and an instructional committee accustomed me to cooperating with others to complete the mission successfully.

I miss the fraternity that exists in the detachment, airborne operations, and working with the inhabitants of a host nation.


Based on your own experiences, what advice would you give to those who have recently joined the Army?

1st SOCOM (A), DCSPER, Plans & Opns Div SGM

Five Things

  1. Learn how to follow good leaders.
  2. Never stop learning everything that you can in your MOS and as much as you can in others.
  3. Learn the United States Constitution, defend and protect it, and adhere to the UCMJ.
  4. Accept that life is not fair but that it doesn't give you a license not to be.
  5. Be a person of and stand by your principles.

In what ways has helped you remember your military service and the friends you served with.

More than I can express at the moment; however, the questions encouraged me to reflect on what I experienced.

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