Story and slideshow by LORIEN HARKER
Visit the Veteran Support Center on the University of Utah campus.
There are 147,944 veterans in Utah, according to the Utah census of 2011. Also according to the census, 1.3 percent of the population is African-American.
Needless to say, African-American veterans are a definite minority in Utah.
The history of African-American veterans in the military is rich, and at some times controversial. One of the first African-American regiments to see battle in World War I and World War II was the 369th Infantry Regiment, nicknamed the Black Rattlers or the Harlem Hellfighters. This regiment was segregated from other white regiments, yet the fighters were heavily decorated.
By the end of World War II, the regiment had suffered 1,500 casualties, and 171 members had received the Legion of Honor.
Similar African-American regiments that have served the United States Military, such as the Red Tails, Buffalo Soldiers, and Tuskegee Airmen, are some of the most celebrated regiments in military history. Yet these regiments were all segregated.
Regiments of African-Americans and white troops were not integrated until the Korean War. Though these regiments could now be integrated, it could be supposed that racism and ignorance toward African-Americans still existed.
Roger Perkins served in the Army for 21 years, from 1970 to 1991. During his years of service, Perkins says that the only time ignorance toward the African-American troops was displayed was in the barracks, never around a superior officer.
“You find ignorant people everywhere you go,” Perkins says.
Though the military may have a history of segregated regiments, the military now is more diverse. White troops make up 67 percent of the military, black troops make up 17 percent of the military, and Hispanics comprise 11 percent of the military.
These numbers somewhat correspond with the numbers of veterans at the University of Utah. Perkins says the statistics are as follows: 26 Asian, 22 African-American, 80 Hispanic, seven Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, 678 white, and 24 non-specified veterans.
The majority of the African-American troops at the U are in the Army and Marine Corps, Perkins says.
He also says there is no special treatment in the military. People are seen as a troop, and nothing more or less.
In regards to race in the military, Perkins says, “We don’t care.”
Though this is most likely true, the VA Salt Lake City Health Care System offers a support group for minority veterans. But why do they feel that they need this kind of support group?
Jinna Lee, Ph.D., a VA psychologist with the post-traumatic stress disorder clinic, says that the support group was formed for minority veterans to feel more comfortable. The familiarity they feel with a person of color is important.
The Veteran of Color Support Group focuses on helping veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. Statistics show that one in four veterans will return from deployment with PTSD. Men are more likely to form PTSD from combat, which is why veterans are often diagnosed with the disorder.
Although only four to seven people typically participate in the group, Lee says talking to veterans of the same ethnic background is comforting to the veterans.
“Issues with race and ethnicity do have an impact of how they function,” Lee says in a phone interview.
Lee says these veterans could potentially feel awkward talking to other veterans who are not of their ethnicity, and it’s easier for people of the same culture to understand them.
Ellington also says that the Air Force made it hard to treat people like they weren’t your friends. During deployments especially, because they all relied on each other, there was a “sense of camaraderie” throughout the entire station.
Ellington says it is not so much an issue of color, but an issue of culture in the military. He likens not understanding someone’s culture to a language barrier. If you can’t speak someone’s language, it makes it hard to form a relationship with them — which he says is key.
Ellington says different cultures have different “paths” they use to get to where they want to be in life, and understanding these different paths means “understanding different terms.” From here, the question of understanding veterans of different ethnic backgrounds becomes a question of being fluent in a specific culture, not race.
Lee says there is such an overlap between race and culture, the veterans look for someone of their own culture to talk about things to make themselves feel better.
Kenneth Hartsfield, 26 , a junior at the U majoring in mechanical engineering, is a member of the Air Force. Hartsfield says he joined the Air Force because he “had no reliable plans after high school and did not want to stay at home and get a job.”
“I wanted to see at least a different part of the country and possibly the world,” Hartsfield says.
Hartsfield says his experience with the military has been relatively color-blind. However, life in basic training was rough for some of his comrades.
“It was a melting pot of life experiences where we all had to depend on the next person to cover our shortfalls,” Hartsfield says. “Some had come from inner city while others came that had only seen a handful of minority people.”
Hartfield’s father was a Green Beret, which is why he grew up in a military town in North Carolina. Not only is his father in the military, but his brother, grandfather, uncle and other various family members also serve.
“My father served 27 years in the Army. My brother is in his first year with the Air Force. My paternal grandfather served in World War II and my maternal uncle served in the Army for four years. I have a lot of extended family that is also serving,” Hartsfield says.
He went to basic training after he enlisted, which he said some had a difficult time adjusting to. Tasks such as laundry and asking questions to superiors came as a shock to some newly-enlisted troops.
“It was a huge culture shock for some but growing up in a military town I and the other well cultured kids had no problem adjusting,” Hartsfield says.
Ellington, Lee, Hartsfield and Perkins all say that racial differences could be a source of conflict between troops. However, all agreed that a more likely cause would be cultural differences.