Many Troops Face the Shock of Returning Home WAR IN THE GULF

February 18, 1991|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

PHILADELPHIA. — Philadelphia.

SAM SMITH recalls the shock he received when he came back after his military service in Vietnam.

The North Philadelphia neighborhoods he'd known as a boy were in shambles, pocked with refuse-strewn empty lots left by riots or demolition. Banks and insurance firms engaged in rampant ''redlining.'' The city government was withdrawing services. Lots his fellow vets got cold-shouldered when they looked for jobs.

''We'd been abroad fighting for others' freedom. We came home to find our own people didn't have it,'' he says.

Today Sam Smith is the head of the National Temple Non-Profit Corporation, a community-development group engaged on every domestic front, from feeding the hungry to block watches, to the development of more than 500 new or rehabilitated houses and apartments.

But overwhelmingly black North Philadelphia still faces massive social problems. Many of its more talented young men and women enlisted in the armed services for college and other benefits. Now they find themselves fighting in the Persian Gulf.

But what will await them when they return? When Kuwait is free, the sheiks reinstalled above their oil wells, will stretches of North Philadelphia still be plagued by abandonment, gunfire still crackling over disputed drug deals?

Boston's Mayor Ray Flynn says America is in great danger of emerging from the Gulf ''with the greatest military power since Alexander the Great'' -- even while its returning veterans and HTC families lack decent jobs, adequate schools, livable housing.

''I just visited a shelter in Boston for Vietnam vets,'' notes Mr. Flynn. ''Every night they line up to get out of the cold, get a hot bowl of soup and a sandwich and a place to sleep. These are the same people who were on the front lines in Vietnam. Now they're on the front lines of soup lines and shelters.''

It's estimated that one-third of America's homeless, perhaps 150,000 people, are veterans, mostly Vietnam vets. Close to a half of them are black.

It is possible to detect a race-war nexus -- blacks carrying an inordinate burden of the Persian Gulf conflict. With only 12.2 percent of the U.S. population, blacks are 23 percent of today's armed forces, 25 percent of the gulf deployment. The Chicago Reporter discovered blacks made up 65 percent of the last two years' military recruits in Chicago and its closest-in suburbs.

''All the guys up on the hill with me were black,'' Ernest Webb, wounded in the Tet Offensive of 1968, told The Reporter. And now Chicago's streets teem with the casualties: ''Go out on any street corner where you see the brothers hanging out and drinking wine. Ask how many of them are Vietnam vets, and I bet you that most of them will put down their wine bottles and raise their hands.''

The story's more complex, though, than callous white politicians ordering young blacks into bloody and perilous combat. More than two-thirds of today's armed services are white. These soldiers, black and white alike, aren't the poorest of our poor; 95 percent are high-school graduates.

But they're overwhelmingly from middle-lower-class families. Lots of white kids from rural towns signed up for excitement or economic opportunity. Many black kids were escaping the drugs, crime, dangers of inner-city street life. Less than 3 percent of this all-volunteer Army has any college experience at all. Kids from affluent suburbs rarely if ever join up.

What will America owe the gulf warriors? First, the warm personal support we so cruelly denied Vietnam vets. Second, the full-education benefits guaranteed them when they signed up, and if they've been wounded, the best in medical and psychological care.

But a wise, generous nation should do much more. We should start with income and housing aid for any economically imperiled families of gulf fighters, whether regular enlistees or reservists.

It's time to think about safer neighborhoods back home. The history of war says men return trained in killing, having seen violence sanctioned, even called heroic. In most nations, homicide rates soar after war. Yet many of America's city streets are killing fields now.

We will need comprehensive social-service programs, helping out any psychologically disturbed veterans but reaching much farther to all and any rootless young people. Decent neighborhoods for our vets will require assistance for all imperiled families, Head Start for each kid, all-day schools to function also as community-service centers, and much more.

Each city neighborhood, each town with any number of Persian Gulf fighting forces ought to be encouraged to start that planning now.

Who should pay? That's easy: the same federal government that committed us to hostilities in the first instance. Even if the programs cost billions, they'd be a fraction of our war costs. And unlike armaments, they'd represent a true investment in the future.

How to raise the money? Again, a simple answer: from all of us who haven't had to fight in the gulf. In future wars, college-educated families shouldn't be so comfortably exempt. But for now, we should accept a steeply graduated income-tax surcharge to assure that our courageous fighting forces have towns and neighborhoods worth coming home to.

Neal Peirce is a syndicated columnist.

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