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The following is an excerpt from the Phildelphia Daily News Posted on Tue, Feb. 28, 2006
Purcell Daniels Jr., a humble hero
WITH COMPANY C pinned down by enemy fire in a battle during the Vietnam War, somebody had to get to a parked tank and take out the hostiles. There’s an Army adage that you don’t volunteer for anything, but Purcell Hayward Daniels Jr. paid no attention to that. To the surprise of his buddies, Purcell jumped up, ran to the tank and climbed inside. As related to his family by men who were there, he drove the tank over a hill. The men heard shooting, then silence. The tank came back, and Purcell hopped out. “He could drive a tank real good,” one of his buddies told the family. Asked why he had been so reckless, his buddies recalled, he said something like, “The job had to be done and somebody had to do it. “That was Purcell. When something needed doing, he was always there to do it. The decorated soldier won a Bronze Star with a “V” device for valor for another action, and two Purple Hearts for wounds that left him 100 percent disabled, as well as other decorations. Daniels died Feb. 21, 2006. He was 57 and lived in West Oak Lane. It wasn’t until after his death that his family found out about his Vietnam actions. He never talked about it and, in fact, at one point urged that his medals be discarded. “My brother was a humble giant,” said his sister. “I once asked him how his arm got messed up, and he wouldn’t tell me. He finally told our mother that there had been a skirmish, and he was the only one to come back alive. “We’re all in shock,” she said. “He was a black ‘Rambo,’ a black John Wayne. He is our hero.”
I write this story because Purcell was my cousin; we grew up across the street from each other, got drafted at the same time and eventually shared a bachelor’s pad in Philadelphia. In between partying, and going to work we spent hundreds of hours talking about our lives and the past, around the midnight lamp. The stories he told me have no resemblance to what is printed above. In between being scared, bored or tired in Viet Nam he told me he spent his time self-medicating and wishing he was home. In no way do I want to tarnish the medals that he and the other brave people who also did extraordinary things, richly deserve. It seems to me ,however, that young people today are being programmed to think that military service is a good way to pay for college, learn computers and get housing loans. Recruiters tend to downplay the fact that you may get killed, kill other people, and may never be the same.

I write this story because my kids have asked me, “Dad, why didn’t you go to Viet Nam like Purcell, it sounds cool!” I told them, “I’m not good at playing Follow the Leader! Once upon a time the leader used to be at the forefront of the action, the first one into battle – thus the name leader. After awhile the leader stayed at the rear so he could observe the battle unfold and dispatch support where needed. Eventually the leader was nowhere near the fighting and received reports from others about what was happening on the battlefront. Today, in a crisis, too many leaders are the furthest away from any danger! They may be buried miles beneath the earth or flying miles above – safe and sound with their circle of family, friends and advisors. It’s surprising how many so-called leaders, who are eager to send us to war, have never served in the military. While it’s okay for my family to serve our country their children are ensconced at some nice college or employed in a plush job, far from harm’s way.” My kids also asked, “You and Purcell must’ve learned how to be tough and fight from growing up in the hood.” I told them “The main thing I learned was to run first, run fast and to run often!” I’m a big fan of Forrest Gump!

We live in a violent society, and as a nation are always at war. (That’s why my kids’ fear, fascination and interest in the ongoing violence in our communities and the world doesn’t surprise me.) Not just the announced wars like Iraq and Afghanistan, but the war on poverty, the war on drugs and the day-to-day wars that happen all the time over dumb shit. “Where’s my money, who stole my weed, you ate my chicken sandwich, you disrespected me!” The lesson we teach, the answer we give from the news, movies, TV shows and our history books is violence! If you mess with me I’ll mess you up! I must admit that I’ve raised my kids with the message, “ if someone hits you, hit them back!” Even the Bible says an eye for an eye a tooth for a tooth. We have to admit, but not accept, that as a nation, a society, a culture, we are warlike!

I also write this story because at my son’s elementary school a group of high school ROTC cadets marched around carrying the American flag as part of a Black History Month celebration. Several parents were disturbed, and for good reason. It’s true that the Supreme Court recently ruled unanimously that colleges that accept federal money must allow military recruiters on campus. But elementary school? And what do young cadets performing rifle drills have to do with Martin Luther King or Harriet Tubman?

So beware students! The war drums continue to beat! And when the ROTC and other recruiters come to your campus to send you in harm’s way remember, their leaders will be behind you – far, far behind you! Be careful playing follow the leader–for many it’s not a game. Follow the leader? You often can’t find them in times of trouble!

Purcell Daniels was a hero, like so many other young Americans who heeded the call to follow the leader and serve their country. I also know why Purcell Daniels wanted to discard his medals. But what happens in Philly, stays in Philly!

Winston Burton
Berkeley resident