OPELOUSAS — Phillip Rose escaped from becoming one of the black soldiers that Martin Luther King Jr. said were being sent to serve and die in Vietnam in “extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population.”
The 66-year-old Opelousan did go to Vietnam, but he survived and is telling his story in a book he recently finished.
As the nation observes the Martin Luther King holiday Monday, Opelousans will pay tribute to Phillip Rose for his years of Vietnam service during the 33rd annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration and Memoriam. He will be recognized for his community service, as well.
“Phillip has done a lot of community service. He also put his life on the line for our safety,” said program founder Rebecca D. Henry. “He touched a lot of lives, especially a lot of the young.”
Henry said Rose’s honor coincides with this year’s theme, “The Legacy of Service: The Color of Unity.”
“He did a lot of service people really don’t know,” Henry said. “They see Phillip Rose. They see him walk around, but they don’t know all the things he has done in the community.”
Rose said he was pleased that he was being honored.
“I really feel good,” he said.
But Rose said that wasn’t how he felt decades ago when a voice known as Hanoi Hannah to the soldiers was being piped through loudspeakers into the jungle of Vietnam where they were patrolling and fighting. She was the voice of propaganda broadcasts from Hanoi radio.
Rose recalled how “the voice” tried to discourage the black soldiers from being in the fight.
At the same time, King was questioning black soldiers’ role in the conflict.
“We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society,” King said, “and sending them 8,000 miles to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia, which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.”
For Rose and other young soldiers, King was a vital part of their lives.
But that hadn’t always been the case for Rose.
Upon his arrival in the service, Rose learned that the knowledge and views of northern black soldiers were different from the views he had gained through his Southern roots. They knew about civil rights issues. Rose only knew about what he saw on television.
“You didn’t have any mass protests (here),” he recalled.
What was happening with King and the civil rights movement was intriguing to Rose.
“I found it very informative to hang around them as much as I could,” he said of the soldiers from the north.
When King was assassinated, it shocked Rose.
“All of us really felt a loss,” Rose said of King’s death. “We still do. I still do.”
Rose’s years in Vietnam would eventually lead to post-traumatic stress disorder that has haunted him at night to this very day. His years there would also lead to unresolved feelings of patriotism and politics.
Today, Rose has written a book that he self-published, “I Gave My All for Nothing: A Vietnam Veteran’s Disappointment with American Society.”
He said he hopes his book will help the nation to heal and will prevent the country from repeating history.
For Rose, one of nine children in the sharecropping community of St. Landry Parish, the U.S. Marine Corps was an option when he realized his family could not afford for him to stay at Southern University and pursue his English degree.
Years later, his career path led to 20 years at the Opelousas Police Department and 10 years at the Jean Lafitte National Park Service in Lafayette.
Rose’s passion to write his story came from sleepless nights when his battle with PTSD would keep him awake.
His wife, Mary, encouraged him to record his flashbacks from the war and his feelings about them onto paper, resulting in a tablet and pen always near his bedside. Besides fellow veterans, she was the only one he felt comfortable enough with to share his PTSD experiences.
When the pages became too many, and with his wife’s support, Rose said he knew a book was the only option.
Rose’s reason for the 67-page book was to set the record straight.
“Losing the war was not our fault,” he said.
Yet he believes many blame the Vietnam veterans.
“It was as if we were the cause of the war — as if we lost the war because of the things we did not do,” he said.
It also angers Rose that the herbicide Agent Orange, used by the military to clear the jungle, was sprayed on the soldiers unknowingly in Vietnam.
“When you think about how your country treated you, it makes you feel bad,” he said.
Yet when he joined the military in 1968, Rose considered it an act of patriotism.
“I loved my country,” he said. “I expected to be treated as an equal, so I knew I had to get out and do my share.”
Despite racial tensions and civil unrest during the time, Rose believed fighting for his country was his duty as an American.
But at some point, his priority changed while he was in Vietnam.
“The fight was that we got as many of us home as possible,” he said.
Rose writes: “The enemy had some very hideous ways of destroying our morale as well. Booby traps, pongee pits or stakes to name a few. Booby traps being the most effective because they had to be tripped. Therefore when one of those was tripped usually several people were injured or killed.”
By writing the book, Rose said he hopes his experience will bring “closure to the nightmares of the dreadful experiences that I encountered.”