Buffalo Soldier heeds duty's call

He joins the Reserves 25 years after Army hitch

October 05, 2003|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

It was as if those old soldiers reached through time and tapped Walter Brady on the shoulder.

Nearly 50 years old, raising his son and four grandchildren with his wife, Brady had every excuse to ignore the men - and the impulse their dusty battle stories awakened within him.

He didn't. He headed to the nearest Army Reserve recruiter and presented himself for service, just as he had 32 years earlier when he joined the Army and stayed for seven years. This time was different. This time he was continuing a legacy.

Brady is a modern Buffalo Soldier, part of a group of men who serve as honor guards at veterans' funerals and appear in parades and at schools dressed as the famed black soldiers of the Old West. The modern-day Buffalo Soldiers are veterans and others who keep alive the memory and contributions of the all-black units.

Yet, for all their re-enactments, their commitment is real, so real it pushed Brady, a middle-aged bus driver from Palmdale, Calif., back into uniform, this time as a specialist with the Army Reserve.

On Feb. 14, Brady headed for Camp Roberts, near Paso Robles, Calif., and months of training for duty in Iraq. Some of the 296 men in his company were like him: middle-aged guys relying on conviction to override paunches and creaky knees.

Serving the country under tough conditions is part of the history Brady upholds. The Buffalo Soldiers were founded by an act of Congress in 1866. Before then, black men had been called upon to fight for the nation, but they were denied a role in the nation's standing army, said retired U.S. Army Col. Franklin Henderson. The act changed that.

"It was a way of showing the gratitude of the country for the service of so many black men during the American Civil War," Henderson said. "They had helped to preserve the Union."

The Buffalo Soldiers, who earned their nickname from the American Indians they sometimes fought, played a key role in the expansion westward, and they remained a part of the standing army until 1944.

Brady has been associated with the Buffalo Soldiers, Greater Los Angeles Area Chapter, since the 1990s. He decided to join the Reserves in January 2001.

After "listening to these elderly soldiers and veterans ... I said, `I'm going to do my part, even if it's driving a bus or a Humvee. ... I want to do my part as an American citizen and, most of all, to represent the Buffalo Soldiers.'"

Brady had to fight just to join the Reserves. There are weight and body-fat requirements, and vigorous physical fitness tests to pass.

He had had knee trouble after an injury at work. And he was carrying about 51 pounds more on his 6-foot-4 frame than the Army wanted. So Brady put himself on a plan.

"At first I thought he was crazy," recalled his wife, Juanita. "He was eating salads, fruit. He was eating beans and very little meat. ... I went along with it."

Two times he presented himself. Two times he was sent away. The third time he presented himself - six days after the Sept. 11 attacks - he passed the weight requirement. Next he endured rigorous examinations of his knees, an MRI, X-rays, strength tests.

About two months later, he received the stamp of approval, and when tensions with Iraq escalated, he was called up to Camp Roberts.

This was not the military he remembered. These soldiers had laptops and DVDs. They ate "add water" meals, not canned C-rations. They used portable outhouses, not trenches dug by soldiers. "I'm like a dinosaur," he said, laughing.

One day in March, the soldiers practiced jumping into foxholes. On about the third jump, Brady felt a pain in his knee and figured he bruised it. Later he asked the doctor for Motrin and continued training. He did not complain. He did not stop training when he developed a cough he thought was bronchitis.

Brady's company had been told they would be relieving troops who had been fighting in Iraq, and Brady was to drive heavy equipment. They were given departure dates that came and went. They waited.

In May, the soldiers received their "DCUs," desert combat uniforms. Brady put on the sand-colored uniform and boots and took a photograph. He was ready to go.

He was not ready, however, for the news a squad leader delivered a few days later. That visit to the doctor after the foxhole jumps left Brady with a "profile," meaning he would need a preliminary medical evaluation.

A rating of 2 or lower would land him a seat on the plane. Anything higher would mean remaining behind for more tests.

The doctor gave Brady a 4.

As the rest of his troop prepared to leave, Brady was told to turn in his desert gear.

Brady had joined to be a soldier, and an ambassador. But the men he trained with, who listened to his stories and told him theirs, had given him more reasons to board the plane. "I wanted to go with these guys. ... Most of all I wanted to watch their backs," he said.

Instead, the soldiers said goodbye. Transportation Company 1498 boarded planes for Iraq, without Brady, in May.

At Fort Lewis in Washington, Brady is waiting for a medical evaluation. He learned that since being deployed he was exposed to tuberculosis, which may account for that cough. He is receiving treatment and is not considered infectious.

He is not sitting idle. A Buffalo Soldiers chapter is nearby, and he remains active with that fraternity of men, "trying to do something good in life." And he worked as a Red Cross volunteer at the base hospital.

Still, given the chance, he would go. That's what a Buffalo Soldier does.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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