Blacks Using Military to Get Ahead As part of our ongoing series on African Americans and the military, NPR's Tony Cox explores how blacks have used the military's incentives to improve their socioeconomic standing.
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Blacks Using Military to Get Ahead

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Blacks Using Military to Get Ahead

Blacks Using Military to Get Ahead

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TONY COX, host:

I'm Tony Cox and this is NEWS & NOTES.

For some, the military is simply a means to and end - a chance to leave a small town, learn new skills and get money for college. For others, it's a lifelong career.

Today, we continue our series on African-Americans in the military with a look at whether joining the military is a good way to improve your economic status.

Staff Sergeant Dremiel Byers has been in the Army for 13 years. He is also world champion Greco-Roman wrestler and member of the Army's World Class Athlete Program. Yvonne Latty teaches journalism at New York University. She is the author of "In Conflict" and "We Were There: Voices of African-American Veterans, from World War II to the War in Iraq." And George Brumell. He is a Vietnam veteran. On June 6, 1966, a landmine took his sight and the use of his left hand. His memoir is called "Shades of Darkness."

Welcome to all three of you

Staff Sergeant DREMIEL BYERS (World Champion Wrestler; Member, Army's World Class Athlete Program): Thank you.

Professor YVONNE LATTY (Professor, Journalism, New York University; Author, "In Conflict," "We Were There: Voices of African-American Veterans from World War II to the War in Iraq"): Thanks.

COX: Yvonne, I'm going to start with you because you have spoken with hundreds of military persons for your two books. Historically, has military life improved the economic prospects of African-Americans?

Prof. LATTY: Yes, it has. There's no doubt that the G.I. Bill can lead to housing, can lead to an education. The military has worked in that sense in terms of making things better for those who join, especially if you have a purpose. If you say, I'm going to join because I want to get a college education or I'm going to join because I want to, you know, improve the status of where I live in my life. But the recent war in Iraq, you know, there's been a flipside to that.

COX: You had…

Prof. LATTY: It's a little bit more - it's a bit more difficult for returning Iraq war veterans in some cases as it was for Vietnam.

COX: Speaking of that war, in particular, you have interviewed veterans from a number of conflicts - Iraq war going all the way back to World War II. Have folks - have their reasons for enlisting changed from war to war over time?

Prof. LATTY: No, they're pretty much the same except if you - you know, with Vietnam, the draft was a real - a big reason why a lot of African-American served. But it's pretty much the same thing. It's looking for a way out of the inner city or to get an education or to travel, or to get out of my small town. The reasons are pretty much the same. It's just the circumstances in the different wars, you know, and how African-Americans are treated in each war is what has changed the most dramatically.

COX: You mentioned the G.I. Bill. I know - in my dad's case, for example, he was in the Navy and the G.I. Bill was his way of getting a house - the house that I grew up in as a matter of fact. And for others, it's a way of getting an education. But today - in today's dollars, the G.I. Bill is not going to get you a house anymore, is it?

Prof. LATTY: No. No, it's not. And if you're coming home from Iraq or Afghanistan, you have post-traumatic stress or you're an amputee or you have so many of the issues that these returning vets are facing, you know, dealing with the G.I. Bill is the least of your concerns. You're trying to get someone to recognize the fact you even have post-traumatic stress. You try to find a job. You try to deal with the wife you've seen for three months in the last four years, you know? It's so many other issues. The things that the Army - that the military used to provide that you would get just for serving, it seemed to sort of be on the backburner these days.

COX: Dremiel, let me bring you into the conversation. Yesterday on the show, we talked about the declining number of African-Americans who are enlisting in the military. Briefly tell us when and why you decided to join the Army and don't forget to include the story about your grandfather. I hear that's a great story.

Staff Sgt. BYERS: Well, I was (unintelligible) State University. I was a prop there and I have some home problems. You know, my mother needed help and I needed to step up and do what I, you know, what you're supposed to do - take care of moms. And I looked at the Army, you know, and I come from a strong military family, you know, my grandfather served and all my uncles. And, you know, I remember the day the college recruiter came to the house and it was - he opened the door. He's like, yeah, can I help you? And he was like, I'm the coach from the (unintelligible) State University. I would like to speak to Dremiel about coming to play football for us. He just left the guy at the door and he walked away. Dremiel, somebody at the door for you. And, you know, I invited the guy in.

But when the Army recruit came, it was, Dremiel, come in, officer. You need anything? You need some coffee?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Staff Sgt. BYERS: Yeah, and it was - and, you know, I took that lesson as that's what he really wanted me to do. And later he spoke with me about it. But after I joined, you know, to help out at home, you know, things happened for me that is nothing but a blessing. You know, I've got stationed in Fort Louis, Washington. There was a wrestling tournament and I've given up my scholarship and I felt like failure. I went this wrestling tournament and I vented on these poor guys. And all the right people saw it. The athletic director knew the coach with the Army wrestling program, and one of the officials that was ref in the tournament knew the coach. And they - that was out consulting with each other, they called him. So he got two calls about me in the same night from two people. And he, in turn, called my company commander who just so happened to be a four-time high school state champion.

COX: Mm-hmm.

Staff Sgt. BYERS: That deal was set in stone without me even knowing about it that night. And I can't say it enough, you know, God having a plan. You know, I found a new life in the Army. You know, my dream was to play football and you know, go to the NFL and, you know, get me a degree while I was doing it and all these things. But I joined a family, you know? And there hasn't been a time since I joined that I regretted it. And the life I'm living now, I'm pursuing an Olympic gold medal and it's great.

COX: Now, you said something I was going to pursue with you anyway about your whether or not you regretted it because you said that first, you know, you took out your anger on the people that you were competing against because you really wanted to go into football and get into the NFL. At some point, though, it changed for you and with the Army that seemed to be the very right thing for you. When was that and what happened to cause that?

Staff Sgt. BYERS: The reason it hurts to bad is, you know, when pity(ph) and all these other things, I'm a big guy, and every day it seems as though someone was saying, man, you're big. You're fast. You should be playing football. So they were reminding what I'd walked away from.

You know, I mean, I didn't mind making that sacrifice. I just - I initially enlisted for two years. I figured I would get back to it. You know, I spoke with the coaches at A&T and Coach Bill Hayes was like, I respect what you're doing, you can come back when you want, you know. And so, I thought I was going to go back. I really did.

But I still felt like as though a postponement, you know, something important to me, you know, I wasn't doing what I was supposed to do. But, you know, the lesson in - you know, I was making a sacrifice for mom, you know. And my grandfather used to always tell me that, you know, if you sacrifice for anything, even if it doesn't work out the way you planned, the greater lesson in that is knowing that you can sacrifice for something good.

COX: Hmm.

Staff Sgt. BYERS: And that's what I got from it.

COX: Well, George - let me bring George into the conversation as well because, George, you've recently ridden a memoir about your life. It's called "Shades of Darkness," about your time in Vietnam. Briefly tell us about where you grew up and why you joined the military.

Mr. GEORGE BRUMMELL (Vietnam War Veteran; Author, "Shades of Darkness"): Yes. Not just a memoir but a great memoir. And it's about growing up in the rural Eastern Shore of Maryland, segregated Eastern Shore of Maryland, and into the military - Korea, Vietnam, blindness and back. And I went in the military for a couple of reasons. One of which was, I got into some pretty serious trouble on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and felt like I needed to leave that.

And also, my brother went into the military and he only stayed for eight months. My grandmother, whom I lived with, was able to get him out of the military on a hardship discharge. And I thought then, well, military cannot be that difficult. So I felt like I needed to go in and show them that I could handle the military. And I loved it.

COX: Now, you went into the war, into Vietnam, at a time - you went in to what was, at that time, one of the most unpopular wars in the history of this country, and you were injured severely and came back. How did you come out of that experience where so many other Vietnam era veterans felt unappreciated because of the demonstrations and such that were taking place in this country during that time? A, how did you feel about your commitment to the service and at what point did you decide for yourself that this was the best thing I could have done for me?

Mr. BRUMMELL: Well, I was really committed to the military. I liked the discipline that it in-stored in me. When I got out of the military, I was somewhat buffered from all the activities about the war that was going on because I went to the hospital. And while I was in the hospital, I received a great deal of support. Support from my former wife, support from friends and doctors all around me, and I felt like I just needed to get something back.

And I thought if I was able to survive this traumatic experience that I had, I would definitely give something back. And that sort of set the road or the pavement for me to go into the University of Akron, then finding a job with the Blinded Veterans Association, retiring as a national field service director, and doing some of the things that I'm doing now to include going into school system.

I have somewhat set a mandate for myself to assist with the problems that school systems are having with especially African-American reading levels. And I think that I can help to encourage young people to read and write.

COX: Well, Yvonne, listening to George's story, how common is it in terms of the stories and interviews that you have done in your extensive research, is this pretty much where other folks are or is George the exception?

Prof. LATTY: Well, one of the most interesting things to me in writing the books was how positive most African-Americans were about their experiences in the military and the brotherhood and the camaraderie and how many of them would do it again if they could.

You know, the military in some ways gets, like, a bad rap from people who are not in the military. But those who serve seem to really respect what they do, respect the soldiers who serve around them and really seem to get something out of it. The problem really is us at home. And when the soldiers come home and us not giving them the respect and the admiration they deserve because the war is unpopular, because they may not agree with why a war is even taking place.

A lot of Americans and African-Americans included have a tendency to sort of like either turn our back or not be interested or not want to support returning vets who come home.

COX: Would…

Prof. LATTY: And that's kind of really sad.

COX: Dremiel, is that your experience? Is there a sense of isolation from the civilian population because your in the military and that your associations are strictly - not strictly, but primarily military?

Staff Sgt. BYERS: Well, I mean, I wouldn't see as much outside of military town, you know, but being in the military town, you know, you get a lot of old soldiers, old vets, and they know what you're going through. They know. And it's unfortunate - I mean, I could go to the DMV and I'm in uniform, I mean, there has never been a time where someone would come up and say, I thank you for your service. I thank you for your service.

And that ones are hard. You know, they let you know that you're appreciated. But there are certain times and emphasis to where you're going to get that, you know? But that's when you turn to, you know, the people you serve with.

COX: Mm-hmm. Let me ask about you and George. One of the - I won't call it a test, but one of the measurements of your - of a commitment to the military is whether or not you want your son to go? George, if you had a son, or I don't know if you do or don't, would you want him to go, or daughter for that matter?

Mr. BRUMMELL: Yes. Most definitely. I think all of us should pay some homage to our country. And the military is - I can't think of no better place than to go into the military and give or make some sacrifice for this great country we live in.

COX: Dremiel, would you want your son or daughter to go?

Staff Sgt. BYERS: It would be an honor to reenact that whole scene that my grandfather did for me.

COX: Really? That's interesting. Yvonne, is that what you're finding that those who went - the veterans are in support of their families going? And is that how the military continues to restock itself through families that have passed down membership in the armed services from generation to generation.

Prof. LATTY: Well, actually, no. I've mostly found that - especially in the more recent conflicts, you know, Gulf War I and Iraq, that the vets, you know, are really not as keen on even going back themselves for the third time. And they wouldn't want their children to be involved in it. I think that they're sort of rethinking, you know, sort of the whole dynamic that got us into this situation to begin with.

And with the older vets I interviewed, the World War II, Korea, you know, it's much more of a feeling of nostalgia and warmth about, you know, what they accomplished, you know. I really do believe that that generation made it possible for me to have the things that I have in my life. I think they're the ones who started the Civil Rights Movement. But, I mean - actually, no. It's like, I find that a lot of the vets, you know, they want - they're working hard so that their kids can have as much as, you know, can go to college and do big things. And so, I mean, I really admire the guests on the show and their experiences and it's actually very inspiring to hear to be honest.

COX: One of the themes of this conversation is whether or not the military is an economic stepping stone or a socioeconomic stepping stone. I'm going to ask all three of you as we bring the conversation to a close.

First for you, George, has this been - is it an economic, a socioeconomic, stepping stone for African-Americans in the military?

Mr. BRUMMELL: I most definitely think so because of several reasons. One, the, again, the discipline that you learn in the military transforms into something great into the workplace. In my case, I was disabled in the military and came out and went to school under Chapter 32, the Vocational Rehabilitation Program in the Department of Veterans Affairs. Which I think is a great program.

And for the Department of Veterans Affairs to pay for your tuition, how could I not go into the military? And of course, you know, as a person that has an education tends to make more money than people without education. So therefore, I feel that the military can be and is a great stepping stone for African-Americans.

COX: I got less than a minute now for you, Dremiel, to tell us whether or not you find that that concept works. That military is a stepping stone to improve your life socially and economically.

Staff Sgt. BYERS: Definitely. I agree with that 100 percent. I mean, I've been over 35 countries, you know, and seen the world and it never would have happened had I never raised my right hand, stated to my name, and swore to protect the U.S. Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

COX: Well, Yvonne, you get the final word. And it seems from what you have said that some believe that and some veteran don't. Is that fair?

Prof. LATTY: I think if you're serving in the Iraq war right now, I think it's difficult to feel that way if you're coming home with post traumatic stress or an amputee. I think, yes, traditionally, if you joined the military, you can get a college education. You can get the discipline. You can - you know, change a life, get a new life. But right now, the way things stand, I have talked to so many vets who are struggling with getting any benefit at all for post-traumatic stress who can't work, who are hitting their wives, who are freaking out all the time. And so when I think of…

COX: I've got stop you there. Unfortunately, our time has run out. I apologize for that, Yvonne. Thank you very much.

George Brummell, I appreciate having you on.

Mr. BRUMMELL: Thank you.

COX: That's NEWS & NOTES for the day.

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