Richard Carden (unedited – not in CALLED TO SERVE)
Richard was a recovering addict who died in 2010 at 58 years of age. He had been drug free for over six years. He lived at the VA hospital in Leeds from 2004-2005, but moved back to West Haven, CT. During his time at the VA he joined an acting group called Performance Project and performed in a play called “Walk My Way” that dealt with his military service and addiction at Springfield College, Springfield, MA. He attended AA meetings on a regular basis and acknowledged struggling with both drug and attention issues. He said, “One of my issues is my temperament and what happened to me and how I was affected by the Vietnam War.”
I grew up in New Haven and my grandparents raised me. Since I can remember, my father and mother were always separated. My grandfather was a preacher. My grandmother was pretty strategic as far as my education was concerned because she always tried to move into a district where I would go to the best schools. I always ended up being the fly in the milk, because the schools were predominantly white and I was the only black guy. I was in one school where there were three black people in the whole school. That was in Norwalk, CT in the middle of Westport and Wilton so that gives an idea of my surroundings.
I used to look at T.V. a lot, but I never liked cartoons or other shows for kids. I did look at a lot of army pictures and it always scared me. At the ages of 7, 8 and 9 the Army meant war and people dying. I didn’t know about the Army during peacetime. In the T.V. shows it was always showing something vicious or violent. That was my concept.
Later on, when I was 18, I was seriously strung out on heroin and I was always being arrested by the police. When two police officers mentioned the army to me during one of these arrests, since they saw I was 18 and should have signed up for the draft, I became fearful. I had been hearing about Vietnam and people, lots of black people, were dying over there. It was 1968. It had never even occurred to me that I might end up there. That was the furthest thing from my mind – me being in the Army, being in Vietnam. I think now that maybe they were using this talk about the draft as a scare tactic. I don’t believe I scare that easy, but I have to say it kind of worked because I ended up leaving town, because of what they told me and I went to New Jersey. I really believe it was my concept of the Army from watching all of that T.V. that put the fear in me.
Needless to say, I felt like I could not avoid the draft. I had a close friend of mine who went to Vietnam and came back. He had told me about little kids getting killed. He explained to me how he was ordered to shoot kids, because he said that they would sometimes be acting friendly toward you and wanting to come up and play with you or talk to you and they would have hand grenades on them or some type of bombing devices. That was another thing that upset and scared me. There was another friend that went into the Army. He was a carefree guy, happy and very energetic and he came back totally insane. He had lost all his common sense and he wasn’t the same again. For years I wondered what happened to him in Vietnam and I found out later that his platoon was ambushed and everybody in the company was killed except him. He actually watched people die.
Let me tell you something about the Army that I quickly learned that helps me to understand what this guy must have gone through. You go through basic training with a bunch of guys and when you get to your permanent duty assignment, some of those guys are still with you. What did that mean? That meant that your relationship accumulated. When you go into the Army, you’re basically between 17 and 20, so you’re young. When you’re young you’re always looking for a buddy. At that time they had a thing called joining the Army under the “buddy system”(The “buddy system” during the Vietnam War guaranteed those signing up together could go through basic training, MOS – military occupational specialty – job training and the first assignment together). and me and a few of my friends did that. What I’m getting at is that a strong relationship will develop so if you went to basic training with a guy and you end up at the same permanent duty assignment. That means that you are good friends and if something happened to him, you’re affected by it. So you can multiply that by maybe 100 and see what you get. What you get is a lot of people who are internally damaged by the war. Being young and not being really experienced with death and not understanding death, it has a devastating effect on you. That’s how I understand what drove that guy crazy.
So there I was in New Jersey living with my father in Plainfield. I was strung out on heroin. I started doing heroin at the age of 15, around 1965. It started out fun and then it became a 24-hour a day job. I did a lot of things that I thought I would never do to support my heroin addiction. Alcoholism ran rampant throughout my family, so I do believe addiction is something that’s at least partly genetic. I really believe that it’s in the genes.
I saw a lot of bad things take place after people would drink alcohol growing up. Everybody would come to our family gatherings and everybody was happy and joyful and as time went by folks would take a drink and then another drink. I would watch them slowly transform from being a happy person to wherever the alcohol takes a person. Some people are happy drunks, some people are violent drunks, some people are quiet drunks, but nevertheless what I would see wasn’t pleasant. I saw things that just didn’t sit well with me and so I decided not to drink. However, the things I decided to do were worse than drinking. I took my first dose of heroin at the age of 15. At the age of 16 I mainlined heroin. I fell in love with it and I took off on a 4-decade vicious run. Cocaine came in years later and I fell in love with speed-ballin’, which is cocaine and heroin mixed together. It was jails, institutions and abandoned buildings. I was sleeping on park benches – living high on the hog one day and the next day I’m on the street corner or in the gutter and that was the story of my drug addiction.
My father put me out because of my addiction. I took some money from the house when I left and I was walking down the street in Plainfield when I took 5 or 10 steps past
*The “buddy system” during the Vietnam War guaranteed those signing up together could go through basic training, MOS (military occupational specialty – job) training and the first assignment together.
the recruiting office and I thought about the draft. I thought, it’s just a matter of time before they start looking for me to sign up. I hadn’t registered. So I said, I might as well get this over with. I was afraid, but I went back in my mind to when those two police officers asked me if I had signed up to be registered. I knew I had to do it at some point, so I went and joined the army. Somehow I overcame the fear of the draft by going in.
Once I was in I didn’t have to worry about anybody knocking on my door. It was like the Catch-22 situation – if you don’t go in, you get jail time like what happened to Muhammed Ali. We all knew about the people running to Canada, but to me the guys who ran to Canada were the rich guys. The poor guys couldn’t just run to Canada. We had to duck and dodge and stay within an arm’s reach of our family. Our families didn’t have enough money to send us to Canada and take care of us, so we had to deal with it in a different way. The other side of the Catch 22 – if I go in to the Army I might make it, I might not. That’s the way that goes. You could really say I joined up to avoid jail and being drafted.
The guy who recruited me was a black guy and he expedited things rather quickly. I went to his office on a Tuesday and by that Thursday I was marching. That’s how they did things back then. I don’t know if they knew I was addicted, but from the marks on my arm they knew I was doing drugs. I told them that I wasn’t addicted, that it was something that had happened in the past and that I was over it, but I wasn’t. As a matter of fact, I cold turkeyed at the reception center. Before you go to basic training you go to the reception station and you stay there for 3 or 4 days to be processed in Fort Dix, NJ. There for the most part I kicked cold turkey, but then again I didn’t kick cold turkey, because what I did was I reduced the amount of heroin that I used each day. I had explained my situation to the recruiter and he said, “Well, the Army is the best place for you because the Army makes a man out of you. The Army can change your life around,” which for some people it does. But my mindset was not the mindset of mainstream America. There were a lot of things going on the ‘60’s – the Black Panther Movement, the anti-war movement, the Nation of Islam, the civil rights movement. I was heavily influenced by the Black Panther Party and the Nation of Islam. Over time my interest intensified, and I started reading and studying. As a matter of fact when I was at my permanent duty assignment in the Army, I started really reading about the Nation of Islam and the Black Panther Party and the Angela Davis situation and how she was being hunted down. All of these things influenced me.
I guess you can say that when I was in the Army, I was there as a soldier and I learned a lot of things. I learned about discipline. I learned about respecting people in authority. But even within the Army there were a lot of people that were influenced by the Black Panther Party and by Huey Newton and Malcolm X. There were even people in the Army who were in the anti-war movement. I joined up, but there were lots of people who got drafted so they were not there by choice. I met guys that came back from Vietnam and the racial situation was hot. It was really hot and you had to be careful.
Actually for me it was already being hot racially at Fort Dix. It was supposed to be an integrated army, but I have to say that it was only integrated by law. When you went into the mess halls or the non-commissioned officers’ bar, it wasn’t integrated. In the mess hall, all the blacks sat on one side and the whites sat on another side. When we went out to the field and everybody was in tanks there would be a tank with all white guys and there would be a tank with all black guys and this was accepted.
As far as the public was concerned, it was an integrated Army, but inside the Army, no it was not. It wasn’t integrated. And it was racist. There was a lot of racism going on. I was falsely accused of an armed robbery and I was court-martialed. Some black guys from Washington, D.C. had robbed a white guy for a quarter. I was in the mess hall eating and without my knowledge they brought the victim inside the mess hall and he pointed me out. I didn’t do the crime. I had to go through the changes of proving my innocence. As far as they were concerned, the law of the land that says everybody is innocent until proven guilty was not in effect. I came to believe the individual is guilty until proven innocent based on what happened to me. If I was innocent until proven guilty, I would be allowed to go about life without any restraints, but I was restricted to the barracks. I couldn’t leave the barracks and any time I went somewhere I had to report to the CO (commanding officer). As far as I was concerned, I was presumed guilty. I had a special court martial and the way I got off was my lawyer asked one of the witnesses to identify me and another guy and he couldn’t do it. I was found not guilty, but I can’t tell you the stress I went through and the humiliation from the NCO’s (non-commisioned officers) and the officers. They all believed they had a guy in their midst who was a thug, who was mean and cruel, and that wasn’t me. I wasn’t that type of person.
This all happened in Germany, at my permanent duty assignment. The recruitment officer had told me how the Army would change your life around and how it was a wonderful place to be, but I found that there were more drugs in the Army than on the street. I did just as much drugs in Germany as I had in New Jersey. When I first got there, they had an initiation party for me, which entailed smoking as much hashish as I could possibly smoke and that’s how it was for the first few months.
I smoked a lot of hash in the Army, but then a couple of months down the road I started doing dope again, heroin. I got strung out again in the Army. It was very easy to obtain stuff and I started ripping people off and it was just awful. My Army life wasn’t really that great as far as I’m concerned. I felt like I could’ve done a lot better, but I didn’t. Despite the fact that I had serious issues about America, I still felt I could have done a lot better in the Army, but the drugs were always there.
My issues with America were about race, the history of America, and the fact that I knew that I could go into the Army, fight a war, come out and still be a second or third class citizen. All the brainwashing that took place – how America and the United States military tried to get us to look at the Vietnamese as being evil trouble-makers who were trying to oppress people – when I was starting to feel that there was no bigger oppressors than the leaders of America. They were constantly telling us that America was the best country in the world to live in, but I was coming to see that there was a reason for that, which was that, when you overpower third world countries and put out all your propaganda, you can then deceive the entire world about being the best. It’s like when I was a drug addict. I stole and I lied and I deceived to get my drugs. Now I don’t depend on drugs any more so I don’t have to lie and cheat. I have to live like an honest man. But look at our history, at the people who came over on the Mayflower and met the Indians – they lied, they cheated, they killed, and they pushed the people who were originally on this land into corners of their own land and took over. Now the country has accumulated all this wealth, all this influence and all this power and they don’t have to lie and cheat any more. Now they can live honestly, but let’s not forget the past. The way it came to think of itself as the best country in the world wasn’t a righteous way or a spiritual way. There’s a lot of work that we have to do here in America.
Whenever you’re in a situation with the judicial system or the court system, there’s always a chance in the back of your mind that you’re going be found guilty. And if you’re found guilty that means you’re going to jail. So the thought of me going to the stockade was a lot of pressure. At the time the only way I knew how to alleviate that pressure was to be high so that intensified my drug use. Even though I was found not guilty, I was still physically hooked so I continued to use. I tried to stop. I went to detox 4 times in Germany. A lot of other guys were also hooked, because that’s what happened in Vietnam. There were a lot of guys who did a tour in Vietnam, but their time wasn’t up yet so they came to Germany or other Army bases throughout the world and they did the remainder of their time. They also did a lot of drugs there.
I would sometimes be asleep at night and wake up to the sounds of other people who were going through what you call now post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in their dreams. Or we’d be looking at TV and there would be shooting on the show and guys would start jumping and going for cover. Sometime I would be playing cards with some of these guys and all of a sudden they just get seriously violent. It was because of what took place in Vietnam. I was hearing their stories so in a way I also received PTSD and I was traumatized by it. I had to be careful how I dealt with people, because there were a lot of sensitive situations. A lot of the guys medicated themselves by using heroin and other drugs.
I had mixed feelings about not going to Vietnam, especially when I saw a lot of the young guys that came back and their minds were all screwed up. I had one particular friend, and we were friends since we were like 13 or 14, who had gotten into some trouble with another kid and so they gave him the option of either joining the Army or going to jail. He joined the Army. He went to Vietnam and he was a gunner. He was telling me about how he would be on this helicopter and he would just spray Vietnamese people with this big machine gun. Later on when he got out, he always kept a pistol. I remember being in Bridgeport at a mall and one of our friends came up to me and said, “Bruce just got shot in the head in Maryland.” He ended up getting killed because he was in the Army and he got some type of romance thing with him and weapons and he never put down the weapon and he ended up dying. He was shot in the head on a bus in Maryland. I can say that was related to the war.
Guys came back all strung out on heroin, came back alcoholic. They didn’t leave for the Army and Vietnam that way. If you didn’t leave that way and you came back addicted there’s a connection there. Yet, I’ll have to say that we are the forgotten ones. There’s always mention about the people who were kidnapped by the Khomeini regime in Iran in the late 70’s, how when they came back home, they had a parade in New York and people was applauding and cheering. Those that served in the Army during the Vietnam War, especially those that were in Vietnam, didn’t have that type of reception. That’s like a slap in the face. It makes no difference what my political views are. The reality of it was that I was in the Army and I had to defend my country and I was willing to defend my country. Some type of acknowledgement and recognition should have taken place for each and every one who went through a war that didn’t have to take place.
There was another incident where a white guy and a black guy got into a fight in the barracks. It was a pretty brutal fight, but the black guy got punished for it and the white guy just walked away – business as usual. Now I’m not sitting here trying to holler, “Woe is me,” or “Woe is the black people.” But just look at the history. That’s what law officers do. That’s what the CIA does. The FBI does it, too. They look at a person’s history. They don’t just assume because a person is black or white that they automatically are to blame. But when the CO came in the first thing he did was he looked at me, the only black person in the room and asked, “Was Carden involved?” I think that was an inappropriate question. I had nothing to do with the fight. The appropriate question to ask was, “What happened?” or “Who was involved?” Don’t just point someone out. Now this type of incident is what as an African American, you get used to. You just learn how to live with situations like that, but I hoped the Army was going to be different. I was 19 years old and there was a part of me that thought that it would be different and then there was a part of me that hoped it would be different, but that’s the story of my life, wherever I go. I was hoping that things would be different, hoping for a change because even though I’m well aware of America as being a racist society, I’m always hoping for the best for America because I’m just about equality.
I was treated good by some German people and by some German people I was treated bad. It wasn’t always racism. It was just the fact that I was an American. There were some white GI’s that were treated just as bad. You had some Germans who were still pro-Hitler. I remember sometimes we would be in a convoy and riding through these little towns and we would all get harsh responses from them. There were times when I would go out to the bars and clubs and I would have a good time. Sometimes the negative treatment that I received, just stemmed from the fact that I was an American and that a lot of people think that Americans always have money. I went into different bars and the attitude that I was seeing was, that if you don’t have any money you can’t be in here. That was the attitude of many of the Germans I met. It was about how much money they could get from the Americans. When I first got to Germany I was at some bar and this German girl sat down beside and asked me for some money. I told her I didn’t have any. She said, “Oh, no. All the Americans have money.” That gave me an idea as to what to expect in Germany.
To my surprise, when I first hit Germany at the 21st Replacement Station there was a recreation room and for the first time in my life I encountered slot machines. I couldn’t believe it. On the Army post they had slot machines like Las Vegas. And the beer, of course, because Germany is famous for their beer. I had a few scary experiences at the 21st Replacement Station. A guy tried to lure me out of the post to do something shady but I didn’t fall for the trap that he was trying to set for me. There was also a gang in Germany that was killing mostly American officers. It was about the Americans being over there and occupying their land. That was scary, too.
One time I was home on leave and my plane ride from South Carolina back to Germany was the most uncomfortable ride. Being a heroin addict, whenever the opportunity presented itself I would always use heroin. When I left the airport in South Carolina, I threw my needles in the garbage and I had to ride 9 hours dope sick.
I completed my tour of the Army and I received an honorable discharge despite my addiction. I was always fighting my addiction. I started shooting drugs at 15. By 17 I was a full blown addict. When I finally processed it, I realized that had been a very bad mistake and that I was hooked on drugs. Even though I realized it was a mistake, I could not successfully break the addiction so I fought it for many many years. My CO’s knew I was addicted. Each reacted differently. . Some were supportive. Some were enablers. Some helped me. Some would loan me money. Some would help me with guard duty – – some people would do it for me. Getting drugs in Germany was like going to the corner candy store on 5th Avenue to buy a bag of potato chips. There was no problem. Every barracks had a drug dealer. You had the good dealers and you had the bad dealers. The dealer that gave me credit was good. The ones that wouldn’t, I didn’t like them. Some of the drug dealers were naïve. I was able to con them and manipulate them; that’s the drug world. There were other people that were also strung out and we would get high and plan how we were going to get clean, how this wasn’t the way to go, but then there was the cunningness of the disease – its nature of being able to baffle you and fool you. It would always overtake you and the next thing you know you’re back to using again. That’s the nature of it.
When I was in Germany I lived off post. I got involved with a German twice my age. I was 20 and she was 40. I lived with her off and on for a while. I met her in her house when I went to visit a friend of a friend. She was attracted to me and she invited me to stay with her at her house near the post. For the most part though I was doing my military duties and supporting my habit. I hustled to get money. I got paid once a month and gambled, but I never got caught. Sometimes I was the pusher and fortunately I never got caught. Drug use was a war in and of itself and it was a war that the Army didn’t talk about. That war was more vicious than the ones we had with the Vietnamese, the Koreans and the Germans. In every war addiction takes place. It was during the Civil War that heroin came into America in the first place through the morphine. Doctors were cutting limbs off without soldiers being sedated and then someone found morphine and the next thing you know you have a bunch of Civil War veterans hooked on morphine.
Now you have a nation hooked on drugs. Some guys died of overdoses. Some guys got caught with large amounts of drugs and got huge sentences. Some were killed in drug deals that went bad or just from being involved in a crime. I myself got in a car accident when I was high coming back from Idar-Oberstein. The car flipped over and I got thrown out of the car. If I had stayed in the car I would have been crushed to death. I went through the windshield. All the crimes that I have committed, never once did I buy a pair of underwear or shoestrings. That money went straight to the drugs. People who commit crimes use the money to buy houses and cars. I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to figure that out. The punishment that was handed out was also race based. If two guys got caught doing or selling drugs the next thing I’d see was that the white guy was going free and the black guy was going to jail or losing his rank. A total double standard…
There were some white guys who I became friends with. They would get mad when they saw the difference in the way folks got treated. There was also a difference in the way white southerners and northerners treated black folks. There’s an old saying among blacks that the difference between a white southerner and a white northerner is that the white southerner would tell you outright he doesn’t like you, whereas the white northerner would smile in your face and stab you in the back. This still seems to be true, the realities of racism.
I came home medivaced because I was a drug addict. They decided to discharge me early and give me an honorable discharge. For my safety, they said, as soon as I got back I had to check into a hospital. In the end it was like a big weight had been taken off my back, because I made it through without going to jail. Being hooked on drugs had been like a war for me. At some point in Germany I realized I might not make it back home.
When I got back I re-established a personal relationship with my family. Being in Germany was the first time I was away from my family for a long period of time. I took another look at the importance of family ties. My love for my immediate family got stronger. I can thank the Army for that. I didn’t write while I was overseas. I was into the drugs so deep. If I wasn’t using drugs I was avoiding my superiors and I didn’t have time to do anything else. As a matter of fact, my mother got in contact with the Red Cross because she hadn’t heard from me and she wanted to know if I was dead or alive. There was more warmth and more closeness when I returned and I was back and forth a lot between my parents. I had always been used as a pawn in their relationship and my mother was able to manipulate the situation because she had had custody of me and she could stick that dagger to my father. We became closer, but I continued to use drugs. Even though I felt a stronger love from my parents, my addiction got worse. Even though I went to countless drug programs and started going to jail and being homeless, the drug was in control of my life. I was a desperado who had no destiny. My existence was all about finding out who had the best drugs in town. It lasted for way too many years and I am thankful that in the last two years I have gotten help that really helped and I have been clean the entire time.
The effect that being in the service had on me was that I am always suspicious of people in authority. From kindergarten on up I had seen people in authority like gods who could do no wrong and had no skeletons in their closet. I now know that is not so. From the beginning the drill sergeants were on drugs themselves. Then there were the techniques they used to get us to obey them – the viciousness of their leadership. It is uncomfortable for me to reflect on them and the whole experience. Sometimes I don’t reflect. I just shut it out. It’s painful to relive and it’s sad that you could be in the most powerful country, the richest, freest country in the world, yet there is a lot of wickedness underneath that is taking place.