Returning vets of color face unique challenges


Veterans returning home from their tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq all must adjust to life back home. However, according to officials, veterans of color often either fail to use no-cost services they are rightfully entitled to or do so too late for various reasons. 

An honorably discharged veteran from active duty is eligible for VA benefits for five years. And, if they went to war, these “combat veterans” can reapply for benefits after their five-year post-discharge period expires. 

Coverage of issues of race and race relations, cultural diversity and immigrant health issues is funded in part by a grant from the F.R. Bigelow Foundation.

“Whether it was medical injuries as a direct result of service or something that develops after they leave service, they can file for a medical or emotional condition [and] can be granted medical treatment plus compensation every month,” notes Aundrey Sanchez, outreach division supervisor for the Minnesota Division of Veteran Affairs. 

According to Sanchez, some veterans of color believe that they can work through problems themselves without help. “Veterans of color don’t seek [VA] benefits as much as the typical Caucasian veteran does,” he notes. “There are some veterans who are going to have different issues than others.”  

There also are some veterans of color who are embarrassed to ask for help, Sanchez says. “A lot of times it also depends on the level of hardship they run into.”

Since 2001, over 18,000 state National Guard members have been deployed overseas. As a result, they are eligible for the same benefits as other military personnel after they are discharged from active duty.

“We are not National Guard when we get deployed,” Lt. Col. Trancey Williams duly points out. Williams, the local Guard’s highest ranking Black officer, is Human Relations and Equal Opportunity division chief.

“Technically, we are still associated [with the Guard after deployment, but] there is no uniform that says ‘National Guard.’ Our uniforms say ‘United States Army’ [or] ‘Air Force,’ ‘Marines’ or ‘Navy,'” he continues.

The Minnesota National Guard also started Beyond the Yellow Ribbon, a comprehensive program that addresses the needs of service members and their families before, during and after deployments. A total of four percent of Minnesota National Guard members deployed to Iraq were Asian, Native American, Latino and Black. 

“All [members of color] came back except one,” Williams reports.  

Sanchez was a U.S. Army staff sergeant who served a year in Iraq during his nine years of active duty. Whether in the National Guard or another military branch, the soldier will change once they see combat, he points out. 

“You are going to see things that really open your eyes,” says Sanchez. “You are going to see some good, but you are going to see a lot of the ugly. You will have a different outlook on life.

“Nobody can go into this situation and not be changed,” he emphasizes.

“When you go to war,” explains Williams, who himself returned last February after a year in Iraq, “there is a strong possibility that you may not come back.” A solider should prepare their family for this, “and then your family starts to make those changes, those adjustments of you being gone. Then all of a sudden you’re back. 

“One of my biggest issues that I am still working on is readjusting to family life balance, [such as] getting my own personal space back in my own home,” notes Williams. “Through counseling [prior to their return], we are told these are the changes that you attempt at 30 days, [then] 60 days, or that you even attempt at 90 days. I’m making those changes slowly.

“Everything is not going to fall back into place just because you are back,” surmises Williams, “just like everything didn’t fall apart because you left. It was a gradual thing.”

The second adjustment is how he talks with non-military types, says Williams. “Since I’ve been back, I’ve had a host of friends tell me that my communication [and] my vocabulary [have] changed. I’m more direct, because in war you’ve got to make a decision, act on it, and move out now. We’ll analyze it later.

“I still do risk analysis, always doing ‘What if?” says Williams, citing as an example his recent attendance at a concert. “Who was going to be out there? What is the possibility of something going wrong? What is my contingency plan? My escape routes?  I don’t stop thinking those things.

“Am I still readjusting? I’m sure I am, but will I ever stop doing those things? I don’t think I will.”

Williams also believes that what impacts a White veteran home from overseas duty has an even greater impact on veterans of color, calling it “emotional trauma.” 

“There are so many psycho-social issues” that soldiers of color often face, either during their tour of duty or after their discharge, claims Eric Proeser, a psychologist at Chicago’s Jesse Brown Veterans Administration Clinic. He ranks his cases by ethnicity:  Latinos first, followed by Blacks, then White veterans. Around 17 percent of his patients are women veterans who receive the same benefits as their male counterparts.

His office sees all veterans, “but it seems a larger percent [are divided] between Hispanics and African Americans,” Proeser reports, adding that the volunteer soldier’s economic profile today is “middle class [or] low-income.”

“My role as a leader is to make sure that our voices, concerns and issues were going to be raised at the highest level, regardless of how small [or large] the issue is,” says Williams on his position with the state’s National Guard to help ensure that all soldiers’ concerns are met, especially those of Blacks and other people of color.    

When he joined the military over 20 years ago, Williams knew that the possibility of seeing combat one day existed. “I understood the choices that I had,” he recalls. “I wanted to come because I’d get some extra money in my pocket. I wanted the benefits of being in the military. I wanted the billion-dollar training that would be an advantage to take into the corporate world.

“The cost was that at some given time, the government might need those skills for protection of the nation. I hoped that it would never happen, but it happened.”

Serving combat time was “a return for that investment, for 26 years of preparing me. It was not my [civilian] occupation that led me to go [to Iraq], but my obligation because of the young brothers and sisters being deployed.

“I didn’t want them there without a leader. I’m the only African American on the leadership team.”

Both Sanchez and Williams encourage fellow service members, especially those of color, to seek assistance when needed. “It is as simple as a phone call,” says Sanchez, adding that this applies also for family members, including widows and dependent children.

“We can look at them as problems or look at them as challenges,” says Williams. “I prefer to look at them as challenges.”


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