Civilian Life Transition Harder For African-American Vets?

For some veterans, the war is not over when they come home. Host Michel Martin speaks with two former servicemen, Benjamin Fleury-Steiner and Leo Dunson, about some of the difficulties African-American veterans face after returning to civilian life.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. It's Memorial Day. It's a time to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice by wearing the uniform. We also thought it was a good time to reflect on how the nation treats its veterans. Congress recently vowed to address the backlog of more than a half a million benefit cases at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Today, though, we decided to focus on African-American veterans and their efforts to get help and recognition when they come home. Joining us now is Benjamin Fleury-Steiner. He is an associate professor at the University of Delaware. He's a veteran of Desert Storm and he's the author of the book "Disposable Heroes: The Betrayal of African-American Veterans." Also with us is Army veteran - he raps now as Sergeant Leo Dunson. That is his stage name.

He's working as a recording artist, rapping about his experience both before and after the war. But he is also a veteran. Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us. I'd like to thank you both for your service, if I may.

SERGEANT LEO DUNSON: Thank you very much, Michel.

BENJAMIN FLEURY-STEINER: Thank you.

MARTIN: So Professor, let me start with you. What is the biggest difference you observed in your research between the treatment of black veterans returning to civilian life from white veterans? Is it something doesn't stick? Or do they find that the skills don't translate or that people don't respect the service that they rendered? You know, what is it?

FLEURY-STEINER: No, I don't think it's that at all. I mean, I think a lot of veterans, regardless of their socioeconomic, racial backgrounds, you know, do benefits on the GI Bill. But what happens is, you know, because we live in a country that's still characterized by racial segregation and urban communities and soldiers who are African-American that come back to those communities that don't social networks like families that have the time or the energy or the ability to get them help, to support them.

You know, I had all of that.

MARTIN: Well, what do you think is the key factor, though, based on your research? Is it you think it...

FLEURY-STEINER: Right.

MARTIN: ...is it in part - excuse me - of social networking issues? Like people - just like you said, it's a capacities issue? Or is it that people are just treated differently? For example, one of the things that occurs to me - we've interviewed a number of veterans who've been in college. One of the things they've found hard is that they're hyper vigilant, you know, and the kids come wandering in late and...

FLEURY-STEINER: Mm-hmm. Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: ...stuff like that. It just makes them crazy. And so - I meant that colloquially, of course. And, you know, because they're hyper vigilant. They've been trained to be.

FLEURY-STEINER: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And so I'm wondering whether the way it plays out racially is if a black man presents - is hyper vigilant and reactive to things and maybe people view it differently than they do for a white guy, for example. Or do you think it's more sort of the social networks, just the care not being easy to access? Or what do you think it is?

FLEURY-STEINER: I think in the stories, the 30 life history, you know, interviews with the vets in the book the big story is one of collective trauma that's unique the experiences of these African-American vets that absolutely has to do with frayed social networks and the challenges, you know, where they're just left on their own to survive.

But on the other hand, you know, I do think - there was one veteran with a remarkable story in the book who was really smart, was on his way to college, but historical circumstance - specifically, the backlash against racial integration in schools and the busing situations - led to his expulsion his senior year and he then joined the military.

And came home and, you know, as he described to me people saw him as a thug. You know, they were intimidated by him. The military, you know, he described the military sort of making him this sort of - I hate to even use the words because it's so - it's such a despicable imagery that's used in our culture.

You know, Dr. Phil is one of the people I know Sergeant Dunson and I both really struggle with having a show "From Heroes to Monsters." And, you know, I think African-American vets, you come back, they already sort of have that stigma of thug. And then they have they're vets; they have monster on top of that. So I guess they're a thug monster.

MARTIN: Hmm. Sergeant, what about you? Did you - how did you feel you were treated when you came home?

DUNSON: Well, you know, many people ask me why do I still call myself Sergeant Dunson and that's particularly one of the exact reasons. Because, see, when I have the uniform on people look at me as, oh, this is a great guy. Or he's a good black guy, however you want to portray it. But as soon as I take the uniform off, like the professor said, I'm just another black guy. Or he's a thug or he's a gangster. Or whatever's portrayed on the TV screen.

I even feel the necessary to explain myself even more and tell - in more in detail of my military career, that I was infantry because the stigma of most African-Americans is that he was a cook, not that he was on the front line or not that he was one of the guys that actually went to fight for the country. You know, I always say, you know, veterans are minorities as well but I am a minority so I'm even more of a minority by being a veteran and being black.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We decided to spend a part of this Memorial Day taking a look at some of the challenges of returning from military service. We're focusing particularly today on the experiences of African-Americans. Our guests tell us that some of those experiences may be different from those of other soldiers, particularly white soldiers, or those with more privilege.

I just want to play a clip from a song that's gotten a lot of attention for you. It's the song "PTSD," Sergeant Dunson. I'll just play a short clip. And I think it kind of speaks for itself. But here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PTSD")

DUNSON: (Rapping) My head spinning, I'm looking for an exit but there's no way out. Got to get all these weapons and sharp objects out this house. I still have dreams of the night I put the barrel in his mouth. Can see the light from the flash compressor and his brains flying out. What's wrong with me? PTSD. What's wrong with me? Got PTSD. Whoo. These pills ain't working, man.

MARTIN: Is this based on your experiences or somebody you know?

DUNSON: This is my personal experiences. All my music is based on my own personal - something I actually personally went through. You know, besides the pills thing. Because people would tell me when you go to the VA they give you pills and they're not working. That was based on what people told me. But everything else is based on what happens to me. I've never done the VA counseling.

Well, they did get - they made us go through it one time and they just asked me, like, 10 questions on a piece of paper, checked off a few boxes, and then they said you could leave. And so that was my encounter with the whole counseling thing. So I never went back. And I was too afraid to get the pills because everyone always says, you know, you get these pills and you're going to crazy even more.

You know, you're going to have these nightmares. And then everyone I know that's ever used pills, it just didn't - it doesn't look like it turned out great. So I didn't want to be one of those people.

MARTIN: Hmm. How are you doing now, by the way?

DUNSON: I'm doing fine, I believe.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I'm just asking well, what's made - what has made your transition back to civilian life work for you? What's been most meaningful for you?

DUNSON: To be honest, I think I have a - I had faith in God and I just had a faith. A lot of people aren't really religious or anything but I think I just had something to hold onto. Whether it's, you know, believable or not I just had something different from everybody else. But that doesn't mean that my life is, you know, all peaches and roses. I obviously had a horrible transition from the military back to a civilian.

I was homeless. I went to jail. Mounds of debt with nobody to help me or bail me out or help, you know, in this situation whatsoever. And I just - I just prevailed.

MARTIN: Do you feel that...

DUNSON: And I...

MARTIN: No, I was going to ask you, Sergeant Dunson, do you think that this idea of the military as a place for people to better themselves is not really true?

DUNSON: I think you can go in the military and better yourself. I believe that, even though I say my faith in God, I also believe that the training that I had allowed me to be able to integrate into society as well. I think that it was a combination of things. I was infantry and I just - I thought about it and I just said, you know, I'll just use what they taught me there and do it here as a civilian. You know, I'll just, you know, fight really hard. I'll, you know, strive. If, you know - if one job says no, I'll just - you know, I'll just go to the next one.

I remember when I first joined the military, I was in the infantry, and I got to my unit, my sergeant used to call me the N word. And he said that he was calling me that because he never wanted that to be able to affect me in any kind of way to where I flared up about it or went crazy about it. He didn't want anything to be able to affect me.

And it honestly worked, so I think back, as in the civilian life, a lot of things aren't able to affect me as much as they probably would have other people because of the things that I experienced in the military.

MARTIN: Professor, I'm going to get a final word from you, too, but before I do, Sergeant Dunson, is there anything in particular you would most want people to know about the experience of being in the service and about returning that you think they might not know?

DUNSON: As far as African-Americans, I think that, in America, we kind of try to act like there isn't discrimination. You know, we - as African-Americans, we're still the highest incarcerated. We still have the highest unemployment rate. We're still the highest among poverty. I think that we all try to just act like that's just not happening. So one thing - it's like I say in my new album that's coming out real soon, "Black Soldier," you know, when I went in the Army, I was black, but I forgot for a while that I was black - which is so weird because, when you're wearing the uniform, everybody's green. It's what they, you know, teach us in infantry. Everybody's green.

But when you go back to society, you learn again that you're black again, and it's really - it sounds like, wow. That just sounds ridiculous or outrageous, but it's the truth. You know, you come back into society and people, unfortunately, might not look at you as, you know, you're Sergeant Dunson, or you're the guy who went and stood in front of a bullet for this country. They just look at you like you're just some, you know, thug or some regular guy.

MARTIN: Professor, a final thought from you? What would you most like people to draw from your book and from your work?

FLEURY-STEINER: I think that they have to realize that, you know, veterans - we love that you thank us for our service and we love all the Support Our Troops bumper stickers, but, you know, folks have to wake up to the fact that there's a war at home. There isn't peace here. There's poverty. There's all kinds of inequality and, you know, with a million veterans slated to come home in the next four years, I think it's going to obviate those real problems. And so I hope that that really forces a reckoning.

MARTIN: That was Professor Benjamin Fleury-Steiner. He served in Operation Desert Storm. He wrote the book, "Disposable Heroes: The Betrayal of African-American Veterans." He was with us from member station WHYY in Philadelphia. Also with us is Sergeant Leo Dunson. He is an Iraq War veteran. He records as Sergeant Leo Dunson, and he joined us from member station KNPR, which is in Las Vegas.

I thank you both so much for joining us and on this Memorial Day. If you don't mind, I would like to thank you for your service.

DUNSON: Thank you.

FLEURY-STEINER: We love it. Thank you, Michel. It was an honor to be on the show.

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