WHILE I was in Vietnam, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. died.
When I first heard the news of his death, I was not shocked. We don't live long, I thought, and somehow the good always seem to die young.
Maybe I wasn't stunned because I, at 24 a battle-hardened Army lieutenant, had seen so much death. I had fought in the great Tet offensive and was still numb from the heat of several recent battles. I felt that it was just a matter of time before my number would be up. I must have been thinking: What is one more death when there have been so many already?
As a black American, I felt guilty that the news of Dr. King's death did not affect me in the same dramatic manner as the deaths of America's other national heroes. I can recall, with great detail, my environment at the moment I heard of President Kennedy's assassination: the exact place I was standing; the time of day; what people around me were saying; my emotions; even the smell of the room.
I know Martin Luther King was significant in my life. He was a household word; his deeds were legendary. The whole black community was always wishing and praying for his success. Maybe I wasn't moved by his death because of my circumstances in Vietnam.
It wasn't until a week after his death that King's real significance touched me, and I realized this country had lost a true pioneer. The date is permanently etched in my mind.
It was in the late afternoon. The day was hot and humid, with the relentless flies and mosquitoes buzzing around my face. The sun had about an hour before it was finished for the day. I was sitting on a sandbag bunker playing my guitar.
I had just learned how to strum a few chords and enjoyed singing along. Music had a calming effect on my spirit in that land of total destruction. I remember plunking the strings and bellowing the tune "The Sloop John B."
Lieutenant Vahn, a Vietnamese platoon leader, stood nearby, impatiently listening and watching me sing. Vahn was a merciless, 40-year-old soldier who seemed to enjoy war and his position.
In spite of his arrogance, we had a good relationship, and I always allowed him to express his views. He was dogmatic, he loved to argue and he had an opinion on every subject.
When the final stanza of my song ended, he said in broken English, "I hear your great leader killed."
I looked at him dumbfounded. Maybe one of the generals had been killed, I thought. Or worse yet, another president had been assassinated and the news had not yet reached me. Vahn talked about how he could not understand how Americans could fight among themselves.
It was at that point I asked him. "Who was killed?" He replied, "Black leader, King."
Vahn knew about Martin Luther King Jr. and was concerned about the significance of his death. He was disturbed that the American people upon which he depended for support seemed to have "feet of clay." He was concerned about the civil rights struggle taking place in the United States.
Vahn was thinking of these events and I had already blocked King's death from my mind. It took a non-American to wake up this complacent American.
I thought about the role Martin Luther King Jr. had played in America. I reflected upon the fact that he had tried to bring blacks into society's mainstream. He tried to make his people a part of the American dream. He knew that unless people have an equal stake in their country's destiny, they will always feel like second-class citizens. King realized that blacks were separate and saw America as two systems, one black, one white, separate and unequal.
Shelby Foote, the noted Civil War writer, stated that before the Civil War, the states saw themselves as individual republics, not one country. In fact, when people were referring to the total states, they would say, "The United States are." After the war, people realized this was one union and indivisible, the phrase changed -- "The United States is." The war changed America from an "are" to an "is."
This is what Martin Luther King tried to do: to change our thinking from a "they" to an "us." It was his legacy to demand that all Americans receive equal treatment, have equal opportunity, realize equal dreams and love this country because we have an equal stake in its survival.
Vahn asked the question again: "How can Americans fight among themselves? To me, you all same. I see no differences, cuz you fight and no like each other; you not good, you bad people." I was willing to go along with Vahn's analysis until he stated that we were bad people.
The lieutenant's statement bothered me because I know in spite of our many faults, we are good people. I know this country is not perfect and that we often make mistakes. However, compared with any other country, America has done more to feed, clothe and protect the rest of the world.