Indiana Supreme Court Justice Robert Rucker was the featured speaker at the Vietnam Veteran’s luncheon at Purdue University Northwest. (Javonte Anderson / Post-Tribune)
History has recorded the struggles many Vietnam veterans faced when they returned home from the war more than four decades ago.
As the country was dealing with political divisions drawn between the establishment and anti-war movement and played out on the streets, the soldiers came home without parades or fanfare. Some were ostracized for answering the country’s call.
But Indiana Supreme Court Justice Robert Rucker, who earned a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for his service in Vietnam, said he received an additional layer of scrutiny from African-Americans.
"For (African-Americans) the rejection was more devastating," he said "We received a double dose from our community," adding that African-Americans questioned how he could fight abroad when they were fighting for civil rights in the United States.
Rucker, a Gary native, was years away from college and law school. He said he was simply fulfilling the duty he was called to do.
"I had no political agenda, no ax to grind," he said Thursday. "My country called and I went just as some 3 million of my countrymen, served proudly and came home."
As the featured speaker at a Vietnam Veterans Day luncheon at Purdue University Northwest opened up about his time spent in Vietnam and some of the struggles he dealt with integrating into civilian society when he returned home.
"In Vietnam I was a grunt; an infantry soldier," Rucker said. "I’d go on patrol, carry ammo, water and food in that order."
Akili Shakur, the Assistant Director of veteran Services at the university, said she feels like Rucker was able to connect with the veterans in the room.
"I think that meant a lot to the individuals in the room who never received rank. It makes them feels like he’s one of them. He’s homegrown," she said.
The event gave many veterans an opportunity to reflect on their experiences in combat decades ago.
"We have a bond because we know what all of us had to go through," said Jerome Grigsby, who served in the Marines in Vietnam. "We don’t need to really reflect because you never forget what that place was like."
In 1967, Grigsby was a 19-year-old Marine corporal. He said he remembers being trapped on a hill for 77 days. His memories are sharp. At age 69, he carries a history book where the battles he fought in are highlighted and his discharge papers that list the several medals he was awarded.
"We lived in the trenches," he said. "That’s what we had to endure. There was no calling mommy and daddy."
For decades, Rucker, like many Vietnam veterans, tried to move forward with his life and move forward from his service.
"All I ever really wanted, without realizing it, was for somebody, anybody to simply say ‘thank you, we’re proud of you.’"
After returning home Rucker went on to graduate from Indiana University Northwest and Valparaiso Law School. After graduating law school, Rucker worked for almost 15 years as a deputy prosecutor and a city attorney for Gary before becoming the first African-American judge appointed to the Indiana Court of Appeals. In May, Rucker’s distinguished career as a Supreme Court Justice will come to an end, when he steps down after serving 26 years on the bench.
The event was the fourth event the university has hosted to honor Vietnam veterans.
"We do it because the first people to attend Purdue Calumet were 26 military students in 1946," Shakur said referring to students who enrolled at then Purdue Extension after World War II.
But Shakur said honoring Vietnam veterans is a bit more personal for her.
"I was in school when they started coming home and I remember how bad it was for them," she said. "I can’t forget that."
The Purdue event came shortly after Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., co-authored a bill that will make March 29 National Vietnam War Veterans Day.
Rucker said he doesn’t want the efforts and sacrifices of veterans to go unnoticed.
"As a judicial officer of the court, I am confronted routinely with issues of civil and human and constitutional rights, but we know these rights do not defend themselves," he said. "Indeed they come with a price. And we acknowledge, as we must, that the direct link between the price Vietnam vets paid and the liberties and freedom that we all Americans enjoy. Indeed, justice is secure because we honored our promise to protect America."
In his closing remarks Rucker emphasized one last point.
"Don’t blame the soldiers," he said. "Don’t confuse opposition to the war with opposition to the warrior."