By Sean Copeland, Contributing Writer

Each year on Veteran’s Day, Americans collectively pause in gratitude to reflect on the sacrifices those in the armed forces make to ensure our safety and freedom. For Black veterans, there is a dual responsibility: fighting for the freedoms of our country while also serving a country that doesn’t always service the needs of our community.

Historically, we’ve seen these things to be true, and sadly these facts still exist throughout our society. Uniquely, Black veterans deal with fighting two sources of freedom: national and physical. Due to the history of slavery, Black Americans have dealt with the constant memory of being treated unfairly due to their skin color, later facing segregation and discrimination. Today, Black Americans still face systemic racism in many areas of life – and the military is no different.

According to the U.S. News and World Report, there are about 16.5 million veterans in the U.S., making about 6.4 percent of the population. It also states that the population remains overwhelmingly white and male. Black veterans make up around 12 percent of the veteran population while around 7 percent of veterans identify as more than one race. Nearly half of all veterans are 65 or older.

After serving in the armed forces, many veterans are hopeful to return to the pleasures of living a normal life. However, adjusting to normal life can be a challenge and resources are sometimes limited. Finding employment, housing, medical care, and more can be a difficult process at times for our returning heroes. Additionally, for Black veterans these necessities may be even harder to find. As we observe another Veteran’s Day, we must ask ourselves these important questions: What are we doing to improve the lives of our heroes? Do we show enough gratitude for their sacrifices?

An Unfriendly Welcome Home

In Detroit there are several veterans who have given their service to ensure our freedoms. Larry Smith, 65, is a Detroiter who began serving in the army in 1977 and was stationed in Augusta, GA. His initial reason for joining was because he wanted to go to college.

“I thought the only way I could go was to join the army,” Smith said. After serving for four months, he injured his back and had to return home before being sent to Yukon, Alaska. However, Smith didn’t always have it easy when returning home, and he says that he went until 2010 before receiving any help for his service. Over time, he has found the services in the Detroit area to be good overall and has received help from VA Medical Center and Volunteers of America Detroit Veterans Housing Program. He was able to find an apartment through VA Homeless Programs, where they pay most of his rent each month. He also receives his medical care from VA Medical Center and gets Social Security and Medicare benefits. While Smith has been satisfied in these areas overall, he still says there are others that need much improvement. As for the care at the VA hospital, he doesn’t trust the care that he received when being treated there.

“I suffered a stroke and felt that I didn’t receive an accurate diagnosis for my aftereffects,” Smith said. As for the financial aspect of returning home, difficulties are unfortunately inevitable for many veterans. Smith said that “veterans have to fight to get money overall.” As a Black veteran, Smith feels that he hasn’t received full disability benefits because of his color.

Today, Smith volunteers several days a week at Brilliant Detroit Littlefield on the city’s west side. Brilliant Detroit provides after school programming and support to children in the surrounding neighborhood. Smith is a cook there and enjoys helping out while making a difference in his community. According to his manager Charlotte Blackwell, Smith enjoys many hobbies like cooking, collecting horse figurines, and has recently developed an interest in trying standup comedy.

Being a Double Minority

Traditionally, veterans are usually older and male, but they come in many different forms. Recently, women have become increasingly more active in the armed forces than they were in decades prior. Women have taken on many roles in the service including combat roles, spy work, and piloting, along with roles traditionally filled by men.

Despite the many strides that women have made in the military, there is a prevalent amount of sexism that permeates throughout. Women must fight for respect and equality in the industry and often feel invisible in the media representation of veterans. Sexual harassment can be a disturbing issue many female veterans face as they’re often tokenized because of gender.

Seeking to combat these issues, Quinchella Jones started Veterans Lives Matter, an organization in Detroit that offers various transitional services to female veterans. Jones is an SPC and served in the US Army in Germany. However, she experienced some trauma as her entire battalion received death threats. As a result, she began to take care of the families of deployed soldiers. Her tour was unique in that Desert Storm started during her duty. While stationed, Jones served in multiple locations: Washington D.C., Maryland, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.

When she returned home, Jones felt the support at VA Medical Center to be terrible, as they didn’t meet her needs. “I was treated by my outside physicians, using medical insurance from my job. I have started to use them more, but only for certain issues,” she says.

As for Detroit services, she feels that there’s room for improvement. Jones is satisfied with her personal team of doctors at the Women’s Clinic and Whole Health Department. But as for other experiences, there are a few reservations about the care that she’s observed.

“I’ve witnessed veterans being treated badly and had to step in to advocate for them, especially seniors.  A lot of veterans just don’t know and instead of them taking the time to explain the situation, they’re rude,” she says. She says that veterans, especially Black women veterans, are largely judged and aren’t helped as much as they should be. Jones shared a horror story of how her Veterans Lives Matter tried to help a veteran by sending them to VA Medical Center.

“One female veteran was told to pawn her wedding ring and use the money to help her find shelter; she’d just lost her husband.  She was so hurt, and I can’t tell you how livid I was. They’ve recently gotten new upper management at Detroit VA, so I hope things will get better,” she said.

As a Black female veteran, Jones recounts experiences of sexual harassment, job favoritism, and more, but she was determined to prevail despite those setbacks. “These few things stagnated my career, caused me trauma and ailments that I didn’t have before.  I was an excellent soldier, I didn’t deserve the treatment I received, but I remained ‘Army Strong’ and I survived,” Jones shares. Today, her organization that seeks to help female veterans with assistance, support, and resources when they return home.

Malani Jones, 35, has a story that proves that veterans can be younger too. Jones’ story is unique in that she served in Alaska and had to get familiar with the harsh climate. “We would put up tents in negative-25-degree weather starting at 7 a.m. We would do cold weather training such as learning how to build a fire and how to stay warm with little amounts of clothes on.”

When she returned home, she says she didn’t really find the help she needed until reaching out to Quinchella Jones of Veterans Lives Matter. Before that, she experienced trauma from the military and didn’t find the help she received to be beneficial.

“And even then, the help I did receive I feel isn’t what I needed because all the doctors wanted to do was give me medicine without finding the root of the issue.” Malani Jones says she can’t elaborate too much on Detroit services but says that she wasn’t too happy with what she received. She uses private doctors for treatments and goes outside of Detroit for her care. As for her personal challenges as a Black female veteran, Malani Jones says she is still trying to find her purpose. She says she struggles with finding value in a career and wants “something that makes me feel valued and not being used because of my military career.” As for now, she continues to utilize Veterans Lives Matter.

For many people, Veteran’s Day has become a day of leisure if you’re afforded the day off work. For others who are working, it often becomes just another day of punching the clock. It will take time for society to change its appreciation of Black veterans. Medical and psychiatric services need to be improved, jobs need to be made more available, and housing needs to be more affordable. This November 11, take a few moments to honor those who have served and have fought for our freedoms. While doing so, take a few extra moments to honor the Black veterans who have given their service in such a unique way. After all, a few moments pales in comparison to their service, and we owe them gratitude on Veteran’s Day and every day.

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