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ORT 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 graduation.
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 basic training.
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 among them.
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
Ozier Muhammad/ The New York Times
Sgts. Williams and Feyer
with their troops at a Fort Knox graduation
"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 wonderful day!"
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 marches.
"We all know that Reed is broke," one white drill sergeant said. "He can't do the work anymore."
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 the past.
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."
Ideal? Get Real
Ozier Muhammad/ 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.
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 second thought.
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 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 race.
IN THE MILITARY: Officers vs. Enlisted
"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 wear them."
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 different."
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 Sheboygan, Wis.
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 mechanic.
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 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 the stress.
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 miles.
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 financial strain.
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 to them.
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 compliment.
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 whole time.
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 endure."
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 college work."
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 male?"
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.
Ozier Muhammad/ The New York Times
Sgt. Earnest Williams as he
marched the 4th platoon on family day.
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 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 truth.
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 Feyer said.
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," he said.
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.
Ozier Muhammad/ The New York Times
Recent trophies awarded to
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 Williams agreed.
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 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."