Black soldiers continue to serve America as honorably as their white counterparts but often leave military service without the tools to ensure their physical, mental, and financial well-being after they have left the battlefield. There are many problems plaguing Black America, but as our nation pauses to celebrate Veterans Day this week, we must use this time to address some of the issues that continue to hinder our military from being welcoming and affirming to all soldiers — no matter their background.
My name is Rob Smith. I’m a journalist and author now, but before, I was Private Smith in the US Army Infantry, where I served for five years right after high school. As the child of working class parents in Akron, Ohio, going to college was a dream, and the military was a very real option post high school graduation. As a black, gay soldier, my time in the military was challenging to say the least. Racism and homophobia made me a target for harassment from some fellow soldiers and superiors, but I soldiered on to become a tough, confident man. I was eventually awarded with both the Army Commendation Medal and the Combat Infantry Badge for my service in Iraq. You can read about my experiences in my memoir.
Though my time spent overseas is now in my rearview, the benefits I receive as a veteran continue to help me in my day-to-day life. After my service, I graduated from Syracuse University with a B.S. in Communications with enormous financial help from the Montgomery GI Bill. After a few years of work, I decided to go back to school,and recently received a M.S. in Broadcast Journalism from Columbia University thanks to a program called Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment. That program picked up the $100K tab at Columbia and gave me a generous stipend so I could focus fully on my studies. I also rely on the Veteran Affairs (VA) healthcare system in between jobs so that I’m not one of the millions of Americans without health insurance.
Unfortunately, my story is not the rule for many of our heroes. Too many veterans separate from the military with little more than a wave and a final paycheck and lack the knowledge and the resources to secure their educational benefits. Veterans continue to struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and don’t know where to turn to get the mental health care they desperately need. We often lack the skill set to budget or control our finances. Some of us find ourselves with expensive, high-interest private loans that were taken out via predatory companies that are known to target military towns and service members. When trying to navigate the byzantine and scandal-ridden VA healthcare system, they are shuffled from person to person and have to cut through miles of red tape to get care related to injuries they may have suffered while serving on active duty, particularly if they didn’t receive their disability rating before they separated.
As LGBTQ soldiers and veterans celebrate the fifth anniversary of the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) and the recent passing of a nondiscrimination policy for LGBTQ soldiers, too many soldiers dishonorably discharged under DADT find themselves struggling to upgrade their discharges in order to receive all the benefits they have rightfully earned. Transgender soldiers discharged under DADT also need help to upgrade their discharges and to get connected to gender-affirming healthcare within the VA system.
This is where the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC), the nation’s leading civil rights organization dedicated to the empowerment of black lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people and my role as the organization’s Ambassador for Veterans Affairs comes into play. As a black, openly gay veteran, I’m acutely aware of the issues that we face, and I’m excited and honored to partner with NBJC to help veterans in areas like finance, education, and healthcare. We plan to partner with military support organizations to help black service members — particularly black LGBTQ soldiers and veterans — gain the financial tools that they need to avoid the high-interest private loan traps that continue to ensnare them and also to help incoming active-duty soldiers formulate a financial plan to enable them to leave the military on the best possible footing if it is not the right fit for them long-term.
Mental health issues continue to be stigmatized in the black community, and for black soldiers, PTSD is no different. I’ve been open about my struggle with PTSD, and for the last few years, I’ve received free mental health care from a wonderful organization called The Soldiers Project, which connects veterans to psychologists and licensed mental health professionals who volunteer their services because it is the right thing to do. Not only will we continue to work to destigmatize PTSD and other mental health issues, we will try to connect as many soldiers and veterans as possible with this organization and others like it.
Finally, we will work with Congress to pass HR 3068 — better known as the Restore Honor to Service Members Act. This act will immediately upgrade any DADT discharges that were “general,” “dishonorable,” or “other than honorable” to “honorable” so that these soldiers can have access to the benefits they have earned. Black soldiers were disproportionately affected by DADT, and in particular, black women were one of the most impacted groups under the discriminatory policy. For example, according to the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), black women totaled less than one percent of service members in 2008 but represented 3.3 percent of DADT discharges. Passing this bill will go a long way toward ensuring that the military completes the path to equality for LGBTQ soldiers that they took with the passage of DADT.
All veterans need our time, support and attention year round, especially black and LGBTQ veterans. They’ve fought for us, and now it is time to return the favor by ensuring they get the recognition, respect and benefits they deserve. This is our path forward to salute our American heroes on Veterans Day and beyond.
Rob Smith is a decorated, openly gay, Iraq war veteran and multimedia journalist. His work has appeared on NBC News, CNN, MSN, Time, and AOL, among others. He is the award-winning author of Closets, Combat and Coming Out and is NBJC Ambassador for Veterans Affairs. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.