I recently posted a blog after I learned that it was a paratrooper from my old unit at Bragg who was the student veteran that killed himself not long before I arrived at Duke University. Alexander Ney and I were both in 2-319 Airborne Field Artillery together in 2002. I left the unit ten days before they were locked down to go to Kuwait and become the OIF initial invasion force. My new unit, 1-14 Infantry Regiment, replaced them in Northern Iraq in January 2004.
In the week or so following that blog, I’ve received a number of responses from fellow veterans at Duke. I’ve asked several if I can share their reflections so that our stories do not remain hidden.
I’ve been given permission to share the following reflection from a former Duke military student with whom I’ve worked on a few occasions. This person has asked to remove all identifying features, but is currently an alumnus after having completed a degree at Duke.
I was and continue to be appalled by the lack of care, support, and welcome that Duke provides its veterans. They gladly will take our [sic] money, but would prefer to keep us in the back of the bus, as it were.
The analogy is likely to be a bit jarring for many. I will say that this person is not African American, but what that community shares with veterans is designation as a federally protected population. Veterans per se are not protected by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but ten years after that was passed, a much lesser known act did pass congress.
The Vietnam Era Veterans Readjustment & Assistance Act (VEVRAA) became law in 1974, providing federal nondiscrimination protection to veterans. This applies mostly to employment, but a series of revisions, the latest being in 2013, pushed many individual institutions to extend protections to educational and other programs as well. Any private institutions or contractors receiving at least $100,000 in federal funds are also subject to VEVRAA. Duke University is one such contractor.
I hope the metaphor is not stretched too far, as there is much overlap between veterans and the fight for civil rights by the African American community in particular. The recent Equal Justice Initiative report, “Lynching in America: Targeting Black Veterans,” gives many tragic examples of black WWI & WWII veterans providing a crucial impetus for the emerging struggle for racial equality.
It is a material reality that black veterans were pushed to the back of buses, including PVT Booker T. Spicely right here in Durham, NC. It is debatable if his veteran status was a primary factor in his murder at he hands of the white bus driver, but it was certainly a contributing factor, as the report repeatedly claims that black veterans were particularly targeted due to the challenge their venerated service posed to the lie of racial hierarchy and white supremacy.
Veterans both white and black remain a marginalized community. We are not forced to sit in the back of buses, but we are effectively forced to “shut the fuck up and drive on” when our stories are pushed aside to be retold and repackaged in ways that give society easy, black and white answers to the nuance of military service. This silences the complex reality of armed service, forcing our stories to recede so that the stories non-veterans tell about war and service get more attention, promotion, and reward.
Don’t believe me? My class, The Virtues of War, outlines exactly that history of narrative degradation. Forcing people to sit in the back of public transportation isn’t the only way to degrade, demean, and marginalize a social group. As this person articulated, some institutions feel threatened by the diverse and sometimes challenging voice of the military community. Too often, it is easy to assume that the military is monolithic, that it is either only good or bad, that veterans are either only heroes or “damaged.” But this pushes some voices, equally important veteran voices, to the margins so that the safe, concurring voices look like the only voices, or the only reasonable voices.