Charles B. Rangel grew up in Harlem and volunteered for the U.S. Army after dropping out of high school. While serving in the Korean War he was wounded during a rearguard action against communist Chinese troops. For subsequently leading fellow soldiers from behind enemy lines, he was awarded the Bronze Star for valor and also received a Purple Heart. Through the G.I. Bill, Rangel earned his law degree and entered public service. Rising from New York state assemblyman to become a 23-term U.S. Congressman, he was a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus and the first black to lead the House Ways and Means Committee. A staunch supporter of veterans’ causes, Rangel—along with fellow Korean War veterans Reps. John Conyers Jr. and Sam Johnson—introduced a resolution in June 2016 to resume talks with North Korea to locate and recover U.S. POW/MIA remains from that country.
Describe your experiences in the Korean War.
I served from 1948 to 1952, and I was not in a segregated army. Everyone was excited that President Harry Truman had “desegregated” the military by executive order, but the truth of the matter is that I went overseas in an all-black field artillery unit in the all-white 2nd Infantry Division. We were the first ones to go to Korea. We were proud of being in the military and being in the 2nd Division.
The first time our unit was hit badly by the Chinese, we suffered terrible casualties. The battalion commander called to the rear for reinforcements. He said that unless we got reinforcements immediately, we were going to have to retreat or withdraw. Word came back that they did not have any “colored” soldiers to replace our casualties. He replied, “I don’t give a damn what color they are—you send us somebody!” They sent up a National Guard unit from a Southern state, and at first there were major problems working together…until the Chinese hit us again. That’s when all [racial issues] went out of the window, rank went out of the window—survival and the flag prevailed.
As a combat veteran, no matter which war you’re talking about, when you have a common enemy, someone who threatens your unit and your country, you somehow are able to overcome your prejudices.
How did the G.I. Bill change your postwar future?
I have been reflecting on my life lately. One of the questions I’ve asked myself is: What was it that took a young combat veteran who was a high school dropout and allowed him to serve in the House of Representatives, even rising to become chairman of the most powerful committee in the Congress? And the answer is abundantly clear—the G.I. Bill.
I had no idea when I went to the Veterans Administration that the services they provided and the scholarships I was able to get would allow me to succeed politically and professionally.
In fact, I want to continue in that vein. Education is critical for children to make a contribution and keep our country competitive.
What are the most pressing issues for our veterans?
Our government is not ready to take care of the emotional needs of our returning military veterans. It’s a complex issue. In this country, unfortunately, you can talk about all types of illnesses, as long as they are physical, and people have compassion and understanding. But once you start talking about emotional illnesses and mental setbacks, then the response changes.
As a soldier you’re trained to have more self-esteem than you need, because you’re fighting an enemy. To return home and admit you need help is inconsistent with the training you received. If we have the best fighting organization in the world, why can’t we also assist those soldiers to be prepared to enter the civilian world?
When I was discharged, the only thing I could say that made me feel proud was how many people I’d killed, how many medals I had or how efficient I was with a rifle. Not recognizing the stigma associated with mental illness has caused us more problems and more expense than if we could move forward and say any illness, mental or physical, has to be recognized and treated.
Would you recommend a military career to young people?
This is a question I faced with my own son. He was being recruited to attend a military academy and to join the Marines. I was frustrated at not being involved in this huge decision, and I contacted the recruiting officer. I asked him how [the service] could recruit young people on campus without dealing with their parents—who need to be sold on the military.
My son later confronted me, asking where the congressman stopped and where his dad began. We [talked further], and he ultimately went into the Marines and served in the Persian Gulf. He, too, enjoyed the benefits of the G.I. Bill. I think [his service] made him a better person. But had I lost my son in combat, I would be cursing in the darkness today that I ever agreed to allow him to go.
Why do you advocate for the return of the military draft?
It’s not to give young people a military experience. I advocate for the draft so that whenever we have a national security situation, and we’re voting to put our men and women in harm’s way, we [stop to think] about declaring and supporting a war in terms of what it’s going to mean to the families and their communities. We have people talking about “putting boots on the ground,” but they’re not talking about people they actually know who are going to be wearing those boots.
My brother enlisted in the military before World War II to try to help my mom, who was without our father. I enlisted before the Korean War to be employed and have a paycheck. If you look at a number of people who volunteer, some want to become American citizens, some want to get off the street, some are avoiding jail time. It’s not a purely patriotic act to enlist.
[Military service offers] good training—if you survive. There’s nothing wrong with having mandatory government service, because you don’t have to carry a weapon. You can serve in hospitals, in schools, in seaports, in airports. You can be a veteran of government service.
Do you think women should be drafted?
I think anybody that enjoys being American should be prepared to serve America. I cannot think of any reason, nor has anyone given me a reason, why we should be prejudiced and deny women the opportunity to serve if they are mentally and physically able to.
How have blacks faced discrimination in the military?
I had an uncle who was angry that America was not sending him overseas to fight the Germans. There were many black men his age who felt hurt, not because they wanted—like me—to get a paycheck, but because they wanted to fight for this country. My uncle told me stories of African-American men carrying broomsticks and marching in front of their local National Guard armory, begging to be enlisted to fight. Racism still existed for those who wanted to protect democracy.
Black Americans have repeatedly had to struggle for the right to help defend this nation. And, gradually, we’ve overcome the obstacles. MH