Na­tion’s black mil­i­tary veter­ans de­serve bet­ter

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - - Crossroads - Adam M. Robin­son Jr.

Many can name ex­actly where they were when Pres­i­dent Kennedy was as­sas­si­nated. I won­der if the same can be said for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose life ended with a bul­let on a mo­tel bal­cony in Mem­phis, Tenn., on April 4, 1968. I was 17, liv­ing in Louisville, Ky., which erupted into vi­o­lent demon­stra­tions.

Fifty years later, King’s mes­sage is more rel­e­vant and nec­es­sary than ever. De­spite the progress over the last five decades that has brought us many firsts by African-Amer­i­cans – in­clud­ing one by me: I be­came the first African-Amer­i­can sur­geon gen­eral of the U.S. Navy in 2007 — we have largely ig­nored the ad­vance of racism across our land, even to­ward veter­ans. Our na­tion has a shame­ful his­tory of its treat­ment of African-Amer­i­cans re­turn­ing from war; many sur­vived com­bat and mil­i­tary ser­vice to this great land only to be hu­mil­i­ated and of­ten killed upon their re­turn. Ac­tivist Medgar Evers, for ex­am­ple, sur­vived the Bat­tle of Nor­mandy, but died in 1963 in a civil rights bat­tle, killed by a Klans­man; he was buried with full mil­i­tary hon­ors at Ar­ling­ton Na­tional Ceme­tery.

In an Equal Jus­tice Ini­tia­tive re­port re­leased in 2016, direc­tor Bryan Steven­son wrote:

“No one was more at risk of ex­pe­ri­enc­ing vi­o­lence and tar­geted racial ter­ror than African-Amer­i­can veter­ans who had proven their valor and courage as sol­diers dur­ing the Civil War, World War I and World War II. Be­cause of their mil­i­tary ser­vice, African-Amer­i­can veter­ans were seen as a par­tic­u­lar threat to Jim Crow and racial sub­or­di­na­tion. Thou­sands of African-Amer­i­can veter­ans were ac­costed, as­saulted, at­tacked, threat­ened, abused or lynched fol­low­ing mil­i­tary ser­vice.”

African-Amer­i­can veter­ans who wore the cloth of the na­tion of­ten lost their lives af­ter re­turn­ing home by those they risked their lives to pro­tect.

Be­fore dis­miss­ing such killings as part of his­tory, un­der­stand and know that the mur­der of African-Amer­i­can mil­i­tary veter­ans con­tin­ues. Most re­cently, a fed­eral jury awarded $10 mil­lion to the fam­ily of an Oklahoma Army vet­eran who died in a Tulsa jail with a bro­ken neck af­ter he was tor­tured for 51 hours, beg­ging for wa­ter and help. This Army vet­eran who served over­seas was ar­rested in a ho­tel while hav­ing a mental break­down af­ter his wife left him, clearly suf­fer­ing from an ur­gent mental health con­di­tion that should have war­ranted a trip to the clos­est emer­gency de­part­ment in­stead of a jail.

At the VA Mary­land Health Care Sys­tem, ask any group of veter­ans and they will tell you that duty, honor and self­less ser­vice mean more to them than eth­nic back­ground and racial makeup. They are trained to rely on each other for their very lives. In mil­i­tary cul­ture, no one is left be­hind.

Veter­ans are a unique pop­u­la­tion. They have en­dured death, dis­abil­ity and moral in­jury – trau­mas of in­de­scrib­able pain and hor­ror — so that we all can en­joy our lives of op­por­tu­nity, free­dom and the pur­suit of hap­pi­ness as de­scribed in our Con­sti­tu­tion. So it is es­pe­cially hurt­ful to en­dure and sur­vive the rig­ors of mil­i­tary ser­vice only to re­turn home and be treated like sec­ond class cit­i­zens un­wor­thy of even the most ba­sic rights. A vet­eran suf­fer­ing any kind of ur­gent med­i­cal con­di­tion de­serves em­pa­thy, com­pas­sion and treat­ment, and not a fa­tal 51-hour or­deal in a jail cell with­out food or wa­ter.

Now, as we cel­e­brate the man who lived and worked tire­lessly to achieve a dream in which all of us are judged by the con­tent of our char­ac­ter and not the color of our skin, we find our­selves at a cross­roads where we as a na­tion can choose to rise above the

pet­ti­ness of the sta­tus quo and the de­struc­tive­ness of racial ha­tred and an­i­mos­ity and rec­og­nize the hu­man­ity of each other.

As King so elo­quently said, “There comes a time when one must take a po­si­tion that is nei­ther safe, not politic, nor pop­u­lar, but he must take it be­cause his con­science tells him it is right.”

Dr. Adam M. Robin­son Jr. is direc­tor of the VA Mary­land Health Care Sys­tem; he served as the 36th sur­geon gen­eral of the United States Navy, over­see­ing both the U.S. navy and Ma­rine Corps health care sys­tems. He can be reached at vamhc­spub­li­cre­la­tions@va.gov

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