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Posted: December 3, 2013 9:00 p.m.

For some soldiers, the show must go on

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Adopted at age 5 by a couple who owned a nursing home in Mount Vernon, N.Y., Wilsonia "Soni" Browne enjoyed entertaining and singing for the residents. Before her 12th birthday, the family moved to Miami, Fla.

Soni recalled, "After high school, I attended Central State College in Ohio, but I wasn’t ready for college. My mother and I had a few words about me dropping out, so I decided to join the Army. That way people wouldn’t tell me what to do."

March, 1967: In basic training at Fort McClellan, Ala., Soni quickly learned the Army was the wrong outfit for independent thinkers.

"I slipped on the PJs my mother had bought me, but our 1st sergeant told me I was in the wrong PJs. I replied, ‘No, these are the right PJs; my mother bought them for me.’ Then she informed me my PJs weren’t regulation, so I repeated, ‘Yes they are, my mother bought them for me.’ Well, I ended up scrubbing three flights of stairs with a toothbrush."

The rifle range: "I’d never shot a gun in my life," Soni said. "There I was with a loaded M-16 and scared to death. I pulled the trigger and was surprised by the kickback. I just kept pulling the trigger and somehow qualified. Then I had to drive a 2½-ton truck, straight shift. (I) never had done that before, either, but I learned. Later in training we had to drive a tank. We were scared to death, again, believing we’d kill each other, but we did OK, and started having fun."

During her third week at Fort McClellan, the base was entertained by the 3rd Army Soldier Show. "I was captivated," Soni recalled. "That’s what I wanted to do."

Soni talked to the base commander. "The major wanted me to be her personal driver, but I respectfully refused and explained that I wanted to sing. From that day until we graduated from basic, I sang the National Anthem at the weekly graduation ceremonies."

Upon graduating from basic training, she received orders for Fort McPherson, Ga., home of the 3rd Army Soldier Show.

At her first audition, Soni was told, "Why did they send you here? You certainly don’t have a voice.’’

"I was devastated," Soni recalled. "But I did get to talk to the producer and was told to go back to the barracks."

After waiting two days, Soni received the good news: acceptance in the Soldier Show.

"I was excited," she said. "I packed my bag and moved into their barracks."

Singer or not, Soni learned to care for the Soldier Show’s bus and 18-wheel tractor/trailer rig.

"It was still the Army," she said, smiling. "I enjoyed the group, the camaraderie, and entertaining the soldiers. It was very rewarding."

Production themes included 1960s hits, "Fiddler on the Roof" and "Up, Up, and Away." Soni said, "We also produced an Asian theme that included me coming down inside a pagoda for my solo. I was proud of that, and glad to do it for the troops."

An emotional experience

Entertaining troops in a time of war is an emotional experience. The likes of Bob Hope realized that, but the entertainers bit their lower lips and did what they did best. They entertained, giving service personnel a show before, after, and sometimes during combat.

Hope’s Vietnam Christmas Special at Long Binh in 1971 filmed before a jam-packed audience. One year later, in 1972, Long Binh was deserted and overgrown with weeds.

Of that, Hope said, "Well, this is like it is now … and this is the way it should be. All those happy, smiling, beautiful faces are gone, but most of them are really where they belong, home with their loved ones."

Wilsonia ‘Soni’ Browne saw those faces, before they went to war, then after they came home.

No yellow ribbons

In her own words: "We entertained the soldiers going to Vietnam from Fort Benning and Fort Campbell. Many were leaving the next day. We did our best and kept a cheerful tone, but I remember all those young faces just out of high school, just making the best of it.

"At one show, I spotted a boy who graduated from high school with me. He was crying, and I wanted to cry with him, but I couldn’t. Even the officers and NCOs looked so young. It was heartbreaking.

"We didn’t understand Vietnam. On the bus we’d talk about Vietnam, but we couldn’t come to grips with what the war really meant."

"Seeing these young men leaving for Vietnam was an emotional roller coaster ride for us, but it was worse when we entertained the soldiers after they came home. Most had been home for about a week when we put on our show. We noticed the change immediately, the wheelchairs, bandages, the braces, lost vision, lost limbs.

"The soldiers were down, almost afraid to be back into the unknown, the ‘unknown’ being their own country. The country was split by the war, and those young veterans had no idea how they’d be received by the public. Many boys wanted to stay in the military; it’s all they knew, but were being forced out because of their injuries."

"The wounded were obvious; the emotionally damaged were not. We learned many could not carry on a conversation, some grinned; others were like statues, no response whatsoever. ‘Approachable’ boys were pointed out by the officers and NCOs, but we’d be warned about many others, the ‘unapproachable.’

"It was so sad; their lives would never be the same. There were no yellow ribbons for them."

A life of service

Credited with four years of military service, Soni earned a degree in social welfare at the University of Maryland and Miami Dade Junior College. She has dedicated her life to helping others, both young and old.

Soni worked as a student counselor at Fort Valley State College and Morris Brown University, but her heart belongs to the elderly.

The resident program director for many assisted-living facilities, Soni has dedicated her skills to Remington House in Conyers for the past 10 years. She lives in Newton County.

Her final thoughts: "I remember the first weekend pass in basic training, when we were refused service at a local soda fountain. We heard the ugly statement, ‘We don’t serve negroes here,’ but our 1st sergeant and base commander heard about it and made sure that never happened again.

"The base commander told them, ‘These ladies are serving their country, and by God, they’ll be served here, too.’

"They took a stand for us, and I will always remember it was the military that took that stand. I believe all high school graduates need to serve in the military or some other capacity for their country for about two years, to learn what freedom really means and to judge people on the content of their character, not on their race, creed, or color, but on the person inside."

Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at aveteransstory@gmail.com or aveteransstory.us.

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