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Upholding Buffalo Soldiers' Way

Walter Brady was serving as an honor guard when he decided to reenlist

September 29, 2003|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

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, 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 did 32 years ago when he joined the Army at 17.

This time was different. This time he was continuing a legacy, and this time he would take an odyssey that would bring him pride and heartache.

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 African American soldiers of the Old West. The Buffalo Soldiers are veterans and others who pride themselves on keeping alive the memory and contributions of the all-black units.

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

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

"They've got the heart," said 1st Sgt. James Norris, of Transportation Company 1498. "I've got several who came back in the service after 9/11 wanting to get in the fight and do something."

In the days following the attack, the National Guard received numerous calls from people inquiring about enlisting, including former soldiers willing to put the uniform on again.

"I got a call from one retired colonel who was 73, and who wanted to contribute," said Maj. Gen. Paul D. Monroe Jr., commander of the California National Guard. "There was this overwhelming sense of patriotism and everybody wanted to contribute."

Maturity is not rare in the reserves. The average age in the California Army National Guard is 34; for the California Air National Guard the average is nearly 38.

"What the older people provide is that maturity and steadiness that just grounds whatever group they belong to," Monroe said.

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 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 Native Americans they sometimes combated, played a key role in the expansion westward, and they remained a part of the standing army until 1944.

Immortalized in Song

A 1980 Bob Marley song immortalized the troops and a Danny Glover movie told the story to a younger generation. Still, it is a history many have not heard, Brady said, "especially children."

Among themselves, the Buffalo Soldiers tell their own stories. They are veterans in their 70s, 80s and 90s. The oldest member of the national organization is 108, Henderson said.

In some of their stories, they are young men again, fighting the Axis powers, only to return home to "No Colored" signs at lunch counters.

In 1966, 100 years after the act that gave black men a place in the U.S. military, those veterans formed a national organization known as the 9th and 10th (Horse) Cavalry Assn.

Among the members of the Los Angeles chapter, Brady is a youngster. But a childhood in Mobile, Ala., taught him that patriotism is more than the easy gesture of waving a flag. Sometimes it is a meditation on the nation's capacity to fulfill its highest ideals, even when the nation fails to do so.

"I couldn't drink out of the water faucet. I couldn't use the bathroom. I'm not bitter, but I tell my children about it, and my grandchildren so they know. It was a dark part of America's history, and we have to deal with it."

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.' "

The last time Brady wore a uniform was nearly 25 years ago. He enlisted then, looking for training, education that would lead to a good job. Then came the Vietnam War, and he fully expected to see combat. Instead he ended up stationed in Alaska. He left the military in 1977 as a corporal.

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