The shameful Vietnam War policy that recruited low-IQ men to die for their country: Louis H. Pumphrey (Opinion)

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SHAKER HEIGHTS, Ohio — As we approach Memorial Day honoring our war dead, take a few minutes to reflect on our government’s most sordid, disgraceful, unconscionable, ignoble and shameful policy during the Vietnam War: The Johnson administration’s “Project 100,000” program instituted in October 1966, which involved the drafting of low-IQ men as the war escalated. Of the 58,220 of our military who died in Vietnam, 5,478 mentally deficient servicemen were killed, most in combat.

The latter statistic was provided in the Fall 2017 edition of The Veteran, a publication of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, in a story written by Hamilton Gregory, author of “McNamara’s Folly: The Use of Low-IQ Troops in the Vietnam War.”

Gregory enlisted in the U.S. Army after graduation from college. While at an armed forces induction center in Nashville, Tennessee, a sergeant ordered him to “take charge” of Johnny Gupton (not his real name). The sergeant instructed Gregory to “go with him every step of the way” during their basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia.

The sergeant said Gupton could not read or write and would require assistance in completing documents at Fort Benning. Then the sergeant said, “Make sure he doesn’t get lost. He’s one of McNamara’s morons.”

Vietnam veteran Louis H. Pumphrey, pictured in 2013, is a member of Chapter 39 of Veterans for Peace. (Gus Chan, The Plain Dealer, File, 2013)

Vietnam veteran Louis H. Pumphrey, pictured in 2013, is a member of Chapter 39 of Veterans for Peace. (Gus Chan, The Plain Dealer, File, 2013)

Gupton was among men with low IQs drafted in a program that resulted in the addition of 354,000 low-IQ men into the armed forces, with 71 percent sent into the U.S. Army; the Navy and Marines each getting 10 percent; and 9 percent going into the Air Force, according to Gregory.

The reason, as you might imagine, was that President Lyndon B. Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara were “desperate for warm bodies,” wrote Gregory. Earlier, the draftees had failed the mental acuity test administered by the military and therefore had been out of reach of the draft, but the Johnson administration changed that policy.

The program also encompassed not only those with below-normal IQs, but also men with other mental or physical disabilities. There was a higher number of volunteer recruits in the program compared to the number of draftees, according to a RAND Corp. study of the strategy. Further, the endeavor, in addition to being applied to those who had failed mental acuity tests, also included men who had been unable to meet other eligibility criteria.

Gregory reported that, when he was on his way to Fort Benning with Gupton, he asked his charge what state he was from and Gupton said he did not know. Gupton, Gregory wrote, was unaware the United States was at war, had no understanding of basic training, did not know his left from his right and had to be taught how to tie his boots.

Gupton survived his tour in Vietnam because a sergeant took him under his wing, putting him in noncombat jobs. (The sergeant grew up with a sister who he said was “mentally handicapped,” and was sympathetic to Gupton’s condition.)

One of the low-IQ fatalities, Gregory noted, was a nephew of combat veteran Barry Romo. The nephew, Robert, was in Vietnam for part of the time Romo served as a platoon leader. Romo was very worried about his kin, who he said was “like a brother,” because the new draftee was to be trained as an infantryman at Fort Lewis, Washington.

Gregory reported that a contingent of the nephew’s family, along with Fort Lewis recruits, officers and sergeants, wrote to the military base’s commanding general pleading that the recruit be spared combat duty because, as one relative wrote, “he would die.”

The general refused to budge.

Romo’s nephew was sent to Vietnam and was in combat close to the border between South and North Vietnam — an especially dangerous area. While on a patrol and attempting to aid a wounded soldier, Robert was shot in the neck. Intense gunfire prevented a medic from treating Robert and he “drowned in his own blood,” said Romo.

The army gave Romo permission to accompany the sealed aluminum casket with Robert’s remains to Rialto, California, for his funeral. Romo said in a speech several years later that his nephew’s family never recovered from his death, which “almost destroyed us with anger and sorrow.”

Gregory concluded his story in The Veteran with a quote from Joseph Galloway, a war correspondent: “The Good Book says we must forgive those who trespass against us — but what about those who trespass against the most helpless among us: those willing to conscript the mentally handicapped, the most innocent, and turn them into cannon fodder?”

Drafted in 1966, Louis H. Pumphrey was a reporter, then editor, for the U.S. Army’s 1st Infantry Division newspaper in Vietnam from July 1967 to July 1968. He is a member of Chapter 39 of Veterans for Peace, based at a Cleveland Heights church.

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