Black vets face racism, many problems, says UD professor and Gulf War Veteran
We know many returning troops struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, but a University of Delaware professor says many African-American veterans also face “the triple evils of racism, exploitation and militarism.”
Benjamin Fleury-Steiner explores that explosive subject in “Disposable Heroes: The Betrayal of African American Veterans,” based on his extensive interviews over a three-year period with 30 veterans of fighting in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.
An associate professor of sociology and criminology at Delaware since 2000, Fleury-Steiner is himself a Gulf War veteran – and white.
Knowing the author’s military service, his professional career and his own race is necessary toward understanding the insights he brings to this subject. He writes that “the benefits of being the white son of parents of middle-class suburbs had everything to do with understanding how I was to rebound so quickly” as a 21-year-old veteran of the Persian Gulf in 1991.
What a contrast to the 30 black veterans in this book, whose experiences in their pre-service years, while in the military and after discharge buttress the professor’s outrage at their treatment.
We welcome the honor being paid these days to our current veterans, as opposed to the maltreatment Viet vets received. We believe military service can provide an escape from poverty and experiences to assure future employment. Those beliefs are shattered in the oral histories told in this book by the men, who mostly grew up and still live in the Wilmington area.
Many of the subjects of his study live or have lived at a temporary housing shelter to which he gives the pseudonym Independence House.
Those veterans pay rent if they can afford it, sometimes from their disability pay.
Others are homeless.
The book is written in what the author calls a dialogic approach. His single-sentence questions are followed by paragraph-long answers about the veterans’ experiences. The technique is disconcerting at times because it’s obvious their many sentences have been combined into a single paragraph in language without a single expletive.Why were these men so willing to talk to a white professor? Fleury-Steiner tells me that for some it was therapeutic to vent their problems, although he often found it difficult to find willing subjects for what is an academic sociological study.
The results, though, are powerful as veteran after veteran talks about broken childhoods in an urban setting, racist treatment by white officers in the military, inability to find helpful services or infrastructure on the return home, encounters with drugs and the law.
While there are some sharp differences in the way the African-American men in this book have dealt with their problems in society and the military, the conclusion Fleury-Steiner finds is that to be black is to be disadvantaged from the start.
The common denominator is a troubled childhood and young manhood, enlisting in what is now called AVF (All Volunteer Force) to look for some stability, an inability to find work or decent housing after discharge, health problems beyond PTSD, a lack of follow-up by the Veterans Administration and no community outreach to assist them.
Fleury-Steiner’s wide-ranging criticisms are bound to rankle many who read this book, and maybe that’s what he intended.
Listen to this, for instance: “America’s protracted emphasis on war has enabled white political and military elites to disengage with any real meaningful dialogue about the ongoing war at home and the countless human rights atrocities of racial and ethnic minorities slaughtered abroad.” A debate on that contention is needed.
A helpful postscript to this book is a listing of veterans’ organizations that offer a variety of help, although he points out that no chapter of NABVETS, which serves black veterans, exists in Delaware.
What does he want readers to take away from this book: “…the importance of both our devastating wars abroad and the deepening inequalities in health employment, housing, education, and criminal justice that have come to define our smoldering war at home. We owe it to all veterans and non-veterans to find a real and lasting peace on our home front.”
Rowman & Littlefield published this $36 book.