Hercules “Chico” Butler, the man known around town for his stylish Zoot suits…
The man known for that infectious smile…
The man known as one of the area’s best dancers…
The man suffering from PTSD? The man on lifetime parole?
“Everybody loves Chico,” he said, “but nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Nobody knows but Jesus.”
“Chico” Butler is the author of multiple books. With what he says he’s experienced over his 85 years in this world, he could write for an eternity. His latest book, entitled “Justice Denied: The Abridged Autobiography of Hercules ‘Chico’ Butler,” is like visiting Kennywood. It’s a Thunderbolt of a roller coaster ride that, like the old Pirate Ship, swings you into an array of emotions as Butler explains his turmoil. A Christian boy, raised in the church in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, who decided to follow his friends into the armed forces. Butler said one of his friends went to the Navy, another to the Marines. As for Chico, he decided on the Army.
“Wearing the United States Army uniform made me feel 10 feet tall,” Butler said in his book. “I had a sense of pride, brotherhood and country just putting my legs in my uniform pants, one leg at a time, tucking in my stiffly iron starched shirt, fastening the army belt buckle tightly around my waist and putting on Army boots. I was sharp!”
Butler, as he spoke with the New Pittsburgh Courier from his East End home last month, said he was sent off to Korea to fight. And fight he did. He showed the Courier old pictures of himself in uniform, with a Combat Infantryman Badge. “That means that you was not sittin’ around lollygagging,” Butler said. “I was fighting like hell. I fought six and a half months in combat; it was cold as hell in the wintertime, and hot as hell in the summertime. Those North Koreans, they do not play.”
War took a toll on the young soldier, who hadn’t even turned 21. In June of 1952, Butler says he was diagnosed by the Army as having “anxiety reaction,” and wasn’t allowed to return to combat. He then worked as an Army “medic,” before finally being honorably discharged in June of 1954.
But what happened next changed Butler’s life forever.
Butler’s mother, Mattie Wolfe, took her son to the VA Hospital in Coatesville, as Butler, in his words, was not in his right mind. They thought help was on the way. But, according to Butler’s book, the VA said they could not help Butler because the “anxiety disorder” he suffered was a pre-existing condition, and did not originate in combat.
Thus, no financial benefits were given to Butler, and, in his words, “The government turned its back on my mom and me; we had nowhere to go, no other help, only each other.”
It was the subsequent excessive drinking, the feeling of hopelessness of not getting the medical help he needed, which caused him to be in the wrong place in the wrong time, in Chester County, Pa. Butler says he was charged, then convicted of a burglary and homicide that he never committed. He says his supposed friends were the ones who probably committed the heinous crime, and he has no recollection of the incident, due to his alcoholism and other medical issues.
“I came up in the church, I knew nothing about crimes. They locked my butt up, I did 15 years,” Butler recalled.
In the early ‘70s, an organization helped Butler’s sentence be commuted to parole, and he walked out of the Pittsburgh State Correctional Institution a free man.
And that’s how Chico Butler, the dancing machine, the master of the Zoot suit, landed in the Steel City. He had actually been here since 1958 when he was transferred from a prison in Philadelphia. But the 1960s soot from the steel mills, the then-lean years of the Steelers, the days of the lower Hill District before the construction of the Civic Arena—he never experienced, because he was falsely imprisoned, he said.
Butler went straight to the VA in Oakland in 1972, and he says they later diagnosed him with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. Never hearing that term before, Butler says the VA believed he could have only acquired the disorder while in combat, and not beforehand, as the VA in Coatesville determined. He began receiving treatment, getting therapy sessions, and things were looking up for one Hercules “Chico” Butler.
But the damage had already been done.
Who wants a convicted felon, who is on parole to this day, working a high-level, white collar job? Also, while financial benefits from the VA come these days, what about all the money Butler says he’s owed by the VA from decades ago if he would have been properly diagnosed upon his return from combat? And if he would have been placed in VA rehabilitation in Coatesville, would he ever have been in a situation as to be accused of murder?
“They had denied me service-connection disability and my benefits when I first came home, and they have caused me nothing but pain and suffering ever since,” Butler proclaimed to the Courier, “and I’m still fighting for them to recognize me as a disabled veteran who suffered PTSD from 1952, and I have all the medical records and documents that back up my story.”
Butler says the VA owes him “an apology. You insulted my intelligence by what you did to me, came back home and you threw me to the curb. How many other veterans did you throw to the curb?”
A May 2013 article in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review suggests there may have been others. “VA officials…have publicly acknowledged that minorities and female veterans often were treated as second-class citizens by VA and other federal agencies, despite wounds, illnesses and injuries as serious as those that white GIs suffered,” the article stated. “VA’s National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study, released in 1990, reported that Black and Hispanic veterans suffered higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health problems than Whites, largely because they were more likely to serve in ground units and experience combat.”
In that article, Penn Hills resident Ronald Hill said at the time he had waited 43 years for his claim to go through the agency. Hill, the Marine Corps Pfc., called the VA “a racist institution” in the article, in the years after he returned from Vietnam.
During the decades-long battle that Chico Butler has been fighting for his justice, he’s used his time in beneficial ways. He’s been speaking with students at area schools for years on how to choose the right path. He stays far away from smoking and drinking, and wants to put smiles on everyone’s faces.
He encourages every parent to get a copy of Justice Denied, “not because of me, but because it tells a story about what happened to me, and I hope in Christ that no other Black person, soldier, ex-convict, goes through what I went through.”
And what about his famous Zoot suits? Why does he wear them, seemingly everywhere? It’s “medication,” Chico says. “I love what they say. What they say is the mental medication. When I get trophies from dancing, or if someone asks me to escort them to a party, or to be in their fashion show,” it gives Butler a great feeling, the exact opposite feeling of the shame and guilt he’s felt for some of the tribulations that occurred in a previous life.
Thus, look for Hercules “Chico” Butler at, maybe, a school, or the Black Beauty Lounge in the Hill District, or possibly the grocery store. Butler should be dressed to a tee. And now you know why.
“They don’t know. They don’t know what I’m feeling,” Butler told the Courier. “A man’s pride shall bring him low, but honour shall uphold the humble in spirit. See, no matter how bad you feel, you keep on praying. And my mother, on her dying bed, she said, ‘son, behind the darkest cloud, the sun is shining. So, when the sun’s shining for you, then let your light shine on everybody. You keep smiling, son.’”
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