|June 7, 2000
Which Man's Army
The Military Says It's Colorblind.
Tell That to These Drill Sergeants.
By STEVEN A. HOLMES
FORT KNOX, Ky. -- Staff Sgt. Harry Feyer was parking
cars and looking glum when the four platoons of Bravo
Company, including his own, came marching toward
him up a long grassy hill on their way to the winter
They stepped smartly, 214 strong, their brass buttons gleaming on
dress greens, their black shoes buffed to a high sheen. They
displayed all the discipline and dash that Sergeant Feyer, a leader
of Fourth Platoon, had helped pound into them in nine weeks of
Striding beside them were his fellow drill sergeants, shoulders
back, chests out, their full-dress uniforms a deep green backdrop
for clusters of glinting medals and rainbows of ribbons, their
brown Smokey Bear hats cocked aggressively low on their
foreheads. Sergeant Feyer, six feet tall and lanky, might have been
Shared Prayers, Mixed
Blessings by Kevin Sack
Best of Friends, Worlds
Apart by Mirta Ojito
Which Man's Army by
Steven A. Holmes
Who Gets to Tell a Black
Story? by Janny Scott
A Limited Partnership by
At a Slaughterhouse, Some
Things Never Die by
When to Campaign With
Color by Timothy Egan
Reaping What Was Sown
on the Old Plantation by
Growing Up, Growing
Apart by Tamar Lewin
The Hurt Between the Lines
by Dana Canedy
The Minority Quarterback
by Ira Berkow
Guarding the Borders of the
Hip-Hop Nation by N.R.
Why Harlem Drug Cops
Don't Discuss Race by
The New York Times
Sgts. Earnest Williams, top, and Harry Feyer, bottom, say race stands in the way of their ambitions.
|Instead he stood apart in his mottled fatigues and dusty combat boots, directing traffic outside
the dingy yellow gymnasium where the ceremony was to be held. It was a duty he had
volunteered for. It was his one-man protest.
Sergeant Feyer was angry that he had been denied an award given to the top-performing drill
sergeant at the end of each basic-training cycle, an award he felt he deserved. True, it didn't
look like much -- just a cheap bronze-plated statue, a generic eight-inch-tall figure of a
sergeant. But in the pressure cooker that is the United States Army, winning even a small
award could help make the difference between promotion and stagnation, between a better life
for his family and just scraping by.
And he knew why he had lost out, or believed he knew: because he is white. No white drill
sergeant had won the award since the company was founded in April 1998. Of the five given
out, three had gone to blacks and one to a Hispanic. The one time a white sergeant was
selected, he gave the trophy back when a group of black sergeants kicked up a fuss, saying he
didn't deserve it.
That Sergeant Feyer had lost out this time came as no surprise in Bravo Company, particularly
to the white sergeants. Everyone knew that in Bravo, a clique of black sergeants ran things.
Sergeant Feyer said he didn't like to think that way. People make too much of race, he said.
But there were times when it did matter to him. "When it's a matter of something that I deserve
because of my position," he said, "if I outrank a person and he gets a job because of his color,
then there's something wrong."
As Sergeant Feyer stewed in the parking lot, Staff Sgt. Earnest Williams stood erect in front of
Fourth Platoon, his square, muscled frame pushing at the seams of his uniform. Sergeant
Williams was part of that black coterie that ran the company, and ran it smoothly. The white
sergeants might grumble, but they acknowledged that the blacks got things done. Yet Sergeant
Williams was not feeling particularly powerful this morning. This was his last day with the
company. He was being transferred to another unit, away from his buddies, away from his
position of influence.
It seemed unfair to him. He was a good soldier, a good leader. His superiors -- his white
superiors -- had said there were too many drill sergeants in Bravo Company and not enough in
others. He did not believe them. He was convinced he was being shipped out because he is
black. As far as he could see, the powers that be didn't like it when the brothers were in
|"We had it for a little while," said one of
his black compatriots. "But then they
said, 'Oh no, we can't let this be.' "
So on a chill December morning, two
soldiers -- one black, one white, both
part of an institution portrayed as a model
of race relations -- stood only yards apart
in the middle of this sprawling base, each
believing himself the victim of racism.
Just then a gray Honda Accord glided
into a parking space and out popped Sgt.
First Class Henry Reed, resplendent in
his dress greens. "Good morning!" he
bellowed, a broad smile splitting his
dark, soft-featured face. "It's a
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Ozier Muhammad/ The New York Times
Sgts. Williams and Feyer with their troops at a Fort Knox graduation ceremony.
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|Sergeant Reed was going to receive the award that Sergeant Feyer saw as rightfully his;
Sergeant Reed would get the glory even though it was Sergeant Feyer who had worked the late
nights, who had pitched in to help other platoons when they were short-handed, who had made
sure the washers and dryers got fixed.
Sergeant Reed was limited by a back injury suffered in a car crash, and it had not escaped
Sergeant Feyer's notice that Sergeant Reed had skipped the long days on the rifle range, that he
hadn't humped a 40-pound rucksack up and down steep, chest-busting hills on 15-kilometer
"We all know that Reed is broke," one white drill sergeant said. "He can't do the work
Sergeant Reed was also nearing retirement; at 39 he was the oldest drill sergeant in the
company. This was probably his last chance to win the company's drill-sergeant award. So his
fellow black sergeants had decided to select him, they said, on the basis of what he had done in
As Sergeant Feyer watched his colleague stride jauntily into the field house, he had another
reason to fume. Sergeant Reed had parked his car off by itself, leaving a devil-may-care gap in
the row of vehicles that Sergeant Feyer -- who finds satisfaction in rote, mechanical tasks --
had meticulously arranged.
"He ruined my parking," Sergeant Feyer said. "Not only did he screw me out of my award,
but he ruined my parking."
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|Ideal? Get Real
The Army is not supposed to harbor
racial resentment anymore. Integrated
since 1948, it is now marbled with
blacks, Hispanics and other minority
members of all ranks. It is one of the few
institutions in America in which blacks
routinely boss around whites, and to hear
the Army brass tell it, no one gives it a
But that is an idealized image. The
Pentagon itself discovered as much last
year, when it found that two-thirds of the
men and women in the armed forces had
experienced a racially offensive
encounter in the previous 12 months.
Those findings more or less mirrored the
view from Bravo Company, First
Battalion, 46th Infantry, in the summer
and fall of last year. Racial tensions
abounded, but seldom were they out in
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The New York Times
Sgt. Feyer, right, looks at the photo album for Bravo company, as recruits lined up behind him to purchase their copies. Sgt. Feyer was engaged with his platoon, while Sgt. Williams, Feyer's partner, often felt that Feyer was too nice with the men to the detriment of their training.
Past articles from The
|the open. Even less often did they rise to high drama. Race-related fights were rare; the angry
spitting out of a slur was uncommon.
The 16 sergeants in Bravo Company appeared to get along, too, eating together in the mess
hall, joshing one another about cultural differences in food, music and sports. In part they were
helping to fulfill the Army's goal of not so much changing racial attitudes as altering behavior;
to some extent they were carrying out orders -- to treat one another with respect regardless of
A selective guide to
|"It's like wearing seat belts," said Sgt. First Class
Thomas Ballard, a white drill sergeant from
Aberdeen, Miss. "When I was growing up I never
wore a seat belt. But the Army says you've got to
On the surface, at least, Sergeants Williams and Feyer
seemed good candidates for getting beyond race. Both
were 34 years old and married. Their children --
Sergeant Williams has three, Sergeant Feyer two --
are of similar ages. Both men had been in the Army
12 years and had been "on the trail," as drill-sergeant
duty is called, since the company was formed. Both
had spotty academic records and both had been
worrying about their careers.
They were also partners -- "battle buddies," in
military parlance -- in running Fourth Platoon, though
Sergeant Williams, as platoon sergeant, was
technically Sergeant Feyer's supervisor. Their metal
desks sat three feet apart. They even lived on the same
street, less than 200 yards from each other.
But neither had ever set foot in the other's house.
Sergeant Williams had a simple explanation: "We
don't have anything in common. We're just
They were certainly different in background. Earnest
Williams grew up poor in a fatherless household in
Waco, Tex. Harry Feyer (pronounced Fire) led a
sheltered, stable life in tidy, middle-class, lily-white
They also came to be drill sergeants by very different
military paths. On the wall next to Sergeant Feyer's
desk was a pen-and-ink drawing of a Cobra
helicopter, a memento of his days as a copter
Sergeant Williams, by contrast, was pure
infantryman. Hanging next to his desk was a framed
pencil drawing of a soldier carrying a rucksack and an
M-16. After he bought the sketch, in Hawaii, he had
an artist erase the white soldier's face and draw one
with black features. It kind of looked like him.
Of the two, Sergeant Williams was far more
comfortable with the racial structure of Bravo
|RACE IN THE MILITARY:
Officers vs. Enlisted
|Company. Though a white captain and white lieutenant oversaw the unit, the four black drill
sergeants were unofficially in charge. Alongside Sergeant Williams, Staff Sgt. Otis Thomas
ran the Third Platoon, Sergeant Reed the Second and Staff Sgt. Robert Boler the First.
Then there was First Sgt. Anthony Boles, a black man who was in charge of day-to-day
matters for the entire company. The four black sergeants held great sway with him -- or so it
appeared to some white and Hispanic drill sergeants.
"If I complained about something, I would get shot down quicker than Reed or Williams
would," said Sgt. First Class Rogelio Gomez, a Hispanic drill sergeant who left Bravo
Company last August. "That was the first sergeant's fault, because he was more comfortable
dealing with his homies."
Sergeant Boles scoffed at the notion that he played favorites. But he and the other black
sergeants, including Sergeant Williams, acknowledged that having a company in which
African-Americans were in control was a source of racial pride. They considered it unusual,
and they feared it would not last.
To Climb, Compete
Race wasn't the whole story in Bravo Company. Career and financial pressures exist in Army
life with or without racial tensions. When race does come into play, though, it only aggravates
While the Army proclaims itself to be about teamwork, its soldiers, including its sergeants,
compete against one another. The sergeants push their troops to be named honor platoon, to
win marching and marksmanship citations, to score the highest on the P.T., or physical
training, test. That means doing the most push-ups and situps, and running the fastest two
Winning is not just a matter of satisfying testosterone-fueled egos. Any award, any citation,
goes into a soldier's personnel file and can help lift him or her to the next rank. Promotions are
everything. The raises they bring may be small, but they are the only means of easing the
Like other sergeants, Harry Feyer and Earnest Williams each made about $2,000 a month
before taxes. With that they had to buy their own uniforms, knapsacks, sleeping bags, helmets
and even the stripes they sewed on their sleeves. Meals in the company mess hall were charged
Housing is free if soldiers live on the post. But that means families must make do with
cramped row houses.
"I'd like to have more than five bucks in my back pocket or, sometimes, no dollars in my back
pocket," Sergeant Feyer said. "I want to be able to go to the A.T.M. and not worry, 'Should I
do this?' " He said he would love to move into one of those bigger, duplex houses with
attached garages. But houses like that are set aside for sergeants first class, a rank above him.
In such an environment there can be gnawing suspicions about why you're not moving up, or
not moving up faster. Maybe it's your shortcomings. Maybe someone is holding you back. Or
maybe, you think, you're not getting ahead because of your race. It's hard to tell.
It was hard to tell with Sergeants Williams and Feyer. Sergeant Williams confided that he
thought little of Sergeant Feyer as a soldier and even less of him as a leader. He felt his
colleague let too many things fall through the cracks and didn't push the privates enough. As
Sergeant Boler said one day, using Sergeant Williams's nickname, "In that platoon, Will's the
daddy and Harry's the mommy." In the macho world of the Army, "mommy" is not a
There was a Monday in July when Sergeant Williams returned from the weekend to find the
barracks a mess. Sergeant Feyer had had weekend duty. Sergeant Williams was worried that
the first sergeant would see the scuff marks on the floor and the scum in the showers and
blame him, as platoon sergeant. That would have stained his record at a delicate time; his name
was before the promotion board again.
Apparently unaware of Sergeant Williams's disrespect, Sergeant Feyer wondered aloud why
his partner didn't share more responsibility with him, why he didn't trust him more. Why was
it that Sergeant Williams tended to confer with Sergeants Reed, Thomas and Boler on matters
involving Fourth Platoon?
"I'm his battle buddy," Sergeant Feyer said. "I feel he should be discussing things with me."
Showing Who's Boss
Basic training had entered the hot, suffocating days of a Kentucky August, and Sergeant Feyer
was angry and hurt. Sergeant Williams had undermined his authority, he said -- again.
A few days before, as Bravo Company was finishing up on the hand-grenade range, the
sergeants had put the recruits in formation for a "shakedown," frisking them to make sure they
were not smuggling dummy grenades, a favorite souvenir, back to the barracks. Sergeant
Feyer called on Pvt. David Kellar, a tough-looking black recruit from Chicago, and got a
scornful look in return.
Private Kellar had been a problem from the start. He was big and intimidating. He liked to
bully the other privates. Once, he got into a fight and broke another recruit's jaw. He was
rebellious. When given an order, he would often suck his teeth or cast a baleful gaze.
Private Kellar's behavior unnerved Sergeant Feyer. "It wasn't like I was afraid of him," he
said. "I'm sure I could take him if I had to. But it was like he wasn't giving me any respect."
He had never seen the private treat Sergeant Williams that way, he said.
So when Private Kellar gave him the look this time, the sergeant decided to show him who was
boss. After patting him down, Sergeant Feyer picked up the recruit's canteen and casually
tossed it into an open field. "Go get the canteen, private," he told him.
But Private Kellar wasn't about to fetch anything. He turned to another recruit and gruffly
ordered him to retrieve his canteen.
Sergeant Feyer only got angrier. He and Staff Sgt. David Hanson, a white Californian,
grabbed the rest of the recruit's gear -- helmet, equipment belt, rucksack -- and heaved it into
the field as well. "Get your gear yourself," Sergeant Feyer said.
Private Kellar obeyed this time but then complained that his helmet was missing an
identification holder. It held not only his Army ID, he said, but also $50. He implied the loss
was the sergeants' fault.
One black drill sergeant wasn't buying it. "Better check him," he said. But before anyone could
touch him, Private Kellar patted his chest himself. Oh, he said, it had been around his neck the
Now Sergeant Feyer wanted the private punished for lying. Back at the barracks, he typed out
papers that could have led to a fine or an outright discharge. But to Sergeant Williams that was
overkill. A number of black drill sergeants thought the white sergeants were too harsh with
black recruits, he said, and he agreed. He recalled his days in basic training when he was a
tough-talking hardhead and black drill sergeants had cut him some slack. So Sergeant Williams
and the first sergeant pressed Sergeant Feyer to withdraw the charges.
Sergeant Feyer relented, but the episode did not sit well. He saw it as part of a pattern in which
Sergeant Williams would contradict him, criticize him, ridicule him or bypass him altogether.
Sometimes when they were shooting the breeze, Sergeant Williams would regale the others
with a tale of the latest Feyer screwup. He said he knew this bothered Sergeant Feyer but
hoped it would prompt him to shape up.
"It's easy to make him feel insufficient or not good enough," Sergeant Williams said. "I didn't
enjoy it, but I did it to put pressure on him to do better."
Sergeant Feyer would laugh at himself along with the rest. But inside, he said, he seethed. He
hated the way his partner embarrassed him.
Steamroller From Waco
On a bright summer afternoon Sergeant Williams was marching Fourth Platoon along one of
Fort Knox's wooded back roads. Each drill sergeant has his favorite cadence -- the rhythmic
call-and-response chant used to keep the privates in step. Sergeant Williams was calling out
one of his.
"I'm a steamroller, baby," he sang in a strong tenor, "and I'm rolling all over you."
The words fit well, physically and temperamentally. At 5 feet 10 inches and 210 pounds,
Sergeant Williams was a model of muscle and power. When he had free time, he was usually
pumping iron in the company's weight room. He was careful with his diet and didn't smoke,
though he did occasionally like a beer. His desk drawer rattled with bottles of pills labeled
"Ripped Fuel -- Metabolic Enhancer" and "Metaform."
He also had a bright, boyish smile that went well with his impish sense of humor.
But in an institution that puts a premium on physical fitness, it was important to Sergeant
Williams to camouflage his charm with sternness and to impress the privates with prowess.
One evening they challenged him to do 50 push-ups in a minute. He accepted but, not wanting
to embarrass himself, first retreated to his office to see if he could pull off such a feat. There he
dropped to the floor and did 50. Naturally the effort tired him. But he would not let himself
show weakness, so he swaggered out into the sleeping bay, slapped a stopwatch into a
private's hand and knocked out another quick 50. The men were wide-eyed.
"In the Army you're either a stud or a slug," the sergeant said. "You can be really intelligent.
But if you can't run three miles or hump a rucksack, then you're a slug."
Sergeant Williams learned the necessity of toughness long before he got to Bravo. He grew up
in the central Texas flatlands, bouncing among housing projects and running through the
weeds around shacks in a neighborhood of drugs and poverty.
Earnest Williams was the sixth of 14 children born to Shirley Ann Hunter. Abandoned by her
first and second husbands, she had little choice other than welfare. But with so many mouths
to feed, it was never enough. Clothes came from the Salvation Army. The family was
constantly being evicted for failure to pay the rent.
Relatives offered to take in some of the children, but she refused. "The one thing our mother
showed us was endurance," said another son, Robert Bell. "Because we had it so hard, we
would have these family group sessions. She would call all my brothers and sisters together
and tell us that the only thing we had was each other, and the only thing we could do was
Not all the children did. The oldest brother, Greg, became a crack addict, and a younger
brother, James, was killed during a drug deal. But Earnest stayed out of trouble, channeling
into sports the determination his mother had taught him. In high school he became a football
and track star. Or, more precisely, he willed himself to become a star; he could not abide the
word "can't." One summer he watched people in the deep end of a public pool. Not content at
the shallow end, he watched them and mimicked them until he had taught himself to swim.
But he was never much of a student. "I went all the way through high school and I don't think
I cracked a book once," he said one day, looking wistfully off in the distance from a bleacher
seat at Fort Knox.
In some ways he is the perfect soldier: strong, driven and unquestioning.
After enlisting he was steered into the infantry, and with his physical abilities he found it easy.
"I felt like I'm at home here," he said. He was considered a first-rate infantryman. Once,
during the Persian Gulf war, he walked point for an entire battalion of the 82nd Airborne
Division as it moved to attack the Iraqis. That was as close as he came to combat; the Iraqis
surrendered at the Americans' approach.
But he never gave much thought to where his career was going. He dutifully took the elite
infantry jobs his superiors recommended -- paratrooper, Ranger -- and succeeded at whatever
was asked of him, to the extent that he got his sergeant's stripes. He was a natural leader as a
drill sergeant, fast-talking, quick-moving and impatient with those who were not.
Yet his career hit a wall after the gulf war. He was promoted to staff sergeant in 1992. Seven
years later, he had yet to make it to the next level, sergeant first class. Four times his name
went before promotion boards, and four times he was rejected.
He and his wife, Ruth, a Puerto Rican whom he met in 1987, suspected that his academic
deficiences were behind his stagnation. He had never taken any college courses in the Army,
even though he had had the opportunity. During a stint at Fort Benning, Ga., for example, he
had enough time on his hands to become a part-time security guard.
"He talks about going back to school lots of times," Mrs. Williams said one afternoon in their
living room, between running one child to dance and another to basketball. "A big obstacle for
him is being afraid to go back. He feels he was never really prepared in high school to do
But as they watched other sergeants move up -- mainly white ones, whose credentials were no
better than his -- the Williamses also began to suspect race.
"It makes you wonder," Mrs. Williams said. "Is he being passed over because he's a black
Sergeant Williams was getting older and going nowhere. He decided that if he didn't get a
promotion by this summer, he would quit. His two years as a drill sergeant were up in April.
His wife was already typing out his application to the Secret Service. He toyed with the idea of
running an R.O.T.C. program at a black college somewhere and taking courses at the same
time. He even considered volunteering to serve a year in Korea, figuring that if he put in 12
months there, he had a chance for an R.O.T.C. slot when he rotated back to the States.
But Korea is considered a war zone, meaning soldiers cannot take their families with them, and
his wife made it clear that she would not stand for that. "It would not be good for my kids not
to see their father for a year, especially my son," she said. "So that's not going to happen."
Tinkerer From Sheboygan
Sergeant Feyer liked to show off Bravo's cavernous classroom. He had spent hours
refurbishing it, pasting blue sisal halfway up the white walls to relieve the drabness and deaden
the echoes. He had even designed the floor, using royal blue tiles against white to make a large
|"146," Bravo's battalion and brigade.
It was his kind of work. "I've always
loved working with my hands," he said.
"I guess I got that from my dad."
His father, Gerrit, was a Dutch
immigrant, a woodcarver who helped
make molds for machine parts. Harry
was the youngest of seven children
whom Gerrit and Cornelia Feyer reared
in Sheboygan, a manufacturing town on
Lake Michigan north of Milwaukee and
south of Green Bay.
The Feyers had moved there for the work
and for their faith. Sheboygan offered a
school run by the Christian Reformed
Church, an offshoot of the Dutch
Reformed Church, and the Feyers
wanted their children educated in the
Ozier Muhammad/ The New York Times
Sgt. Earnest Williams as he marched the 4th platoon on family day.
|Reform tradition. Sheboygan was a safe setting in which to raise children, but it was isolated.
"Because he was going to a Christian school and hung around with Dutch people, he was kind
of sheltered," his father said.
There were hardly any blacks in Sheboygan. A local joke has it that if you see a black man on
the street, he must play for the Packers. Sergeant Feyer remembers knowing one black family.
The father was a police officer. The son was a thief.
While Earnest Williams was a football hero in high school, Harry Feyer faded into the crowd at
his school. He didn't play sports, he didn't participate in extracurricular activities, he didn't do
well in his studies.
"He was kind of a laid-back kid, not a natural leader," recalled Art DeJong, his high school
English teacher. "I wouldn't say Harry was the most highly disciplined guy I've ever met. He
was friendly and likable, the type of kid who sometimes gets lost."
Where he usually got lost was under the hood of a car. He would spend hours in a neighbor's
garage, breaking down and rebuilding engines. Mechanical tasks absorbed him, just as they
would in the Army, to the point where they distracted from the rest of his life.
After finishing school, he married his high school sweetheart, Laurel Cluk, a strong-willed,
outspoken woman. He got a job in a plant that made wall paneling and shortly concluded that it
was a dead end. That was when he decided to enlist.
In the Army he gained recognition as a first-rate mechanic and was given the job maintaining
Cobras. He wound up doing little more than that; it took him almost eight years to become a
sergeant. In part he blames a supervisor, in part himself.
It was 1991, and the Army was phasing out the Cobra, so promotions for people who worked
on it were becoming rare. He was supposed to be notified of a special program permitting
Cobra mechanics to switch to other specialties. But he was a good mechanic and his supervisor
didn't want to lose him, so, the sergeant said, the supervisor hid the notification papers.
Sergeant Feyer learned of the ruse the next year, but by then it was too late for the retraining.
"I should have gone straight to the I.G., the inspector general, and say this guy just screwed
me," he said. But the supervisor "was somewhat of a friend of mine," he said, "and I didn't
want to get him in trouble."
"So I didn't say anything."
He does say something when his assertiveness is questioned, however. He'll smile, bob his
head and, like some goofy cartoon character, sing, "Doh-dee-doh-dee-doh."
That sort of passivity drives his wife crazy. At dinner one night at home, he was complaining
about being cheated out of the top drill sergeant award that went to Sergeant Reed. Without
missing a beat he began describing the work he was going to do during the break between
cycles to improve the company's classroom.
But why put yourself to all that trouble after what has happened? he was asked.
"Because he's stupid," Laurel Feyer interjected.
Sergeant Feyer smiled sheepishly. "Doh-dee-doh-dee-doh," he sang.
The promotion board was meeting during the summer and Sergeant Feyer was eager for a shot
at platoon sergeant. But he wondered what chance he had when all the platoon sergeant slots in
Bravo Company were held by blacks.
Sergeant Feyer had been in an almost identical situation in South Korea. There a white
sergeant, a talented helicopter mechanic, was bypassed for platoon sergeant because all the
platoon sergeants were black and a black first sergeant looked out for them. Or so most people,
especially whites, suspected. As far as Sergeant Feyer knew, no one bothered to find out the
Now he saw history repeating itself. "I hated thinking like that," he said. "But I just didn't
want to get screwed."
Not again. Besides, he saw himself as a new man now.
His transformation began, he said, the day in 1994 when the Army told him that it was kicking
him out. It had been three years since his supervisor had sandbagged him into remaining a
Cobra mechanic, and he still had not made sergeant. The Army was pruning itself of dead
wood, and he, stuck at corporal, was on the list.
Laurel Feyer was pregnant at the time, and the couple had a 5-year-old son; they needed the
Army's medical benefits. One night Sergeant Feyer lay awake, his chest so constricted he
could hardly breathe. "I was really scared," he said. "I didn't know what I was going to do."
Fear galvanized him. He pleaded with the Army not to discharge him and volunteered to work
in nuclear, biological and chemical warfare. Not many soldiers choose that specialty. Most are
scared off by it, imagining themselves in stifling chemical-warfare suits, never mind the
poisons. Promotion possibilities there are wide open.
"I took it because I didn't want to throw away eight years of being in the Army," Sergeant
He made sergeant a few months later.
The promotion brought another surprise. Attending mandatory classes for noncommissioned
officers, he graduated with honors. Buoyed by his success, he signed up for courses at a
community college in Colorado Springs, where the family was living. He got A's, B's and an
associate's degree. He was stunned.
"I went all through high school thinking I'm a failure, that I'm nothing but a D-minus student,"
In short order he became staff sergeant, then drill sergeant, finishing near the top of his class.
Now, at Fort Knox, he had a chance for platoon sergeant, and he wasn't going to be denied by
a group of blacks just because he wasn't one of them.
|He talked over the situation with the company's
executive officer, Lt. Paul Bergson, a chubby,
college-educated white officer with a mordant sense
of humor. Lieutenant Bergson warned him that before
raising a stink he should determine whether the blacks
promoted to platoon sergeant had more seniority. He
checked, and they had.
But the black sergeants got wind that whites were
questioning the platoon leadership's racial makeup
and resented it.
"They never want to see a black man get ahead,"
Sergeant Reed said as he sat with a group of black
sergeants in the mess hall one night. Sergeant
As soon as whites feel even a little threatened, he
said, "they all stick together."
A Truce, or Maybe Not
By the autumn of last year Sergeants Williams and
Ozier Muhammad/ The New York Times
Recent trophies awarded to Sgt. Williams.
|Feyer had reached a kind of accommodation. It might have had something to do with Sergeant
Williams's promotion; in September he received word that on his fifth try he was being made
sergeant first class. The pressure, for the moment, was off. His wife could put away the
application for the Secret Service.
A few days before the fall graduation, Sergeant Feyer gingerly approached Sergeant Williams
and mentioned that his parents would be visiting from Sheboygan and that they had never seen
their son at work. Sergeant Williams picked up on the hint and gave Sergeant Feyer his place at
the ceremony marching in front of Fourth Platoon.
"This stuff don't mean nothing to me, anyway," Sergeant Williams said.
For his part, Sergeant Feyer began trying to work more effectively with Sergeant Williams. He
tried to anticipate what was wanted of him. He felt Sergeant Williams tried to talk with him
more. "We're clicking now," he said. "We don't even have to say anything. We each know
what to do."
Sergeant Williams had a different view: his partner still wasn't pulling his weight. "He wants
his own platoon," Sergeant Williams said. "I feel he should get it and then fall on his face. The
reason he doesn't fall on his face now is because I don't let him."
But Sergeant Williams soon had something else on his mind. Near the end of the fall cycle he
was told that he was being transferred to Echo Company, across the parade ground.
The orders outraged him. He had achieved a position of power in Bravo Company. The
transfer would mean he would have to start over again. And it messed up his plans. Bravo was
not participating in basic training for the January cycle, meaning that its drill sergeants would
essentially have nine weeks off. Sergeant Williams had enrolled in a college course for the
break. Now he would have to withdraw and work another basic training cycle with Echo.
Why the transfer? Sergeant Williams saw the reason, again, as racial. To him and his black
colleagues, the battalion's white hierarchy could not tolerate one of its four companies' being
run by black sergeants. One had to go.
Sergeant Williams and the other black sergeants say they had a premonition of this during a
ceremony in November to replace the company commander. As the battalion commander and
the battalion command sergeant major looked out on the parade ground and saw a black
sergeant standing in front of each platoon and a black first sergeant in front of the entire
company, you could see the shock in the officers' eyes, the sergeants said.
Not so, said Col. Mark Armstrong, the battalion commander, and Sgt. Maj. Franklin Ashe.
They had barely taken notice of the company's racial makeup, they said.
"This blows me away that they would have these perceptions, because the thought never
crossed my mind," Sergeant Major Ashe said.
Two days before the December graduation, Sergeants Feyer and Williams sat brooding in their
office along with Sgt. First Class Mike Martin, the replacement, who is white. Sergeant
Williams was angry about his impending transfer. Sergeant Feyer was still upset about having
been denied the drill sergeant's award. He was speculating about who might or might not have
voted for him. Sergeant Williams, who had voted against his partner, sat in silence.
'It's Too Late'
The winter graduation, minus Sergeant Feyer, was
over. Friends and relatives were mingling in the
barracks, congratulating the recruits. Several parents
dropped by Sergeant Williams's office to shake his
hand for molding their strapping young men into
soldiers. But as the minutes ticked by, Sergeant
Williams grew impatient. He wanted to hurry up and
move his things into Echo. He was supposed to
meet Sergeants Boler and Reed for beers. Sergeant
Feyer was going golfing with Sergeant Hanson.
Walking outside the barracks, Sergeant Williams
mentioned an overture he had received that morning.
"Harry said to me at breakfast: 'You live only 200
yards away, and you've never been over my house
and I've never been over your house. Why don't we
try to get together?' "
He said he would consider it. "But I kind of feel
like, what's the point? It's too late.
"It's like, 'Let's patch things up.' But there's really nothing to patch up."
He enlisted a number of privates to help him take his gear over to Echo. They loaded up a
truck, drove it across the parade ground and lugged the stuff up two flights of stairs. Sergeant
Williams hung his fatigues in a locker and tossed some equipment onto an unmade bunk.
From down the hall he could hear music drifting out of the office he would share with his new
partner. It was gospel music, the sound of a choir. Sergeant Williams didn't care for gospel; he
was a rhythm-and-blues man. But it didn't seem to bother him. He had met his new battle
buddy, Mordecial Hale, who was 35, 6 feet 5 and black.
So will it be better, Sergeant Williams was asked, having a brother as a partner?
"Without a doubt," he replied. "Without a doubt."