Collateral Damage

Assessing the cost of service for minority veterans

Air Force veteran Edgar Whitfield (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Evidence of homelessness is easy to come by in Austin – drive past Downtown and witness a line of people waiting to access services at the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH). It's an unavoidable reality for any large U.S. city, but especially one like Austin, where affordable housing is scarce and the minimum wage is $7.25 per hour.

Within that population, one group is continually overrepresented: According to an Aus­tin Ending Community Homelessness Coa­li­tion (ECHO) report, as of January 2015, about 20% of Austin's homeless are veterans, a higher percentage than is found in any other area in Texas. (Nationwide, about 7.3% of the U.S. population has served or is serving in the military, and about 12% of the homeless population are veterans.) Veterans are not only more likely to become homeless, but are also more likely to stay on the streets longer than the average homeless person. And within that group, yet another group is overrepresented: Almost 50% of homeless Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans are African-American.

According to Megan Podowski, who runs the supportive housing program at Caritas of Austin, the city's housing problem carries extra weight with veterans. "That's our biggest barrier in Austin. We're at a 98% occupancy rate, so landlords can and are charging well above fair market value. [The landlords] can be extremely picky, with any tiny blemish. We're not even talking about major criminal history all the time. If you don't have a spotless rental history, and if you've paid late a couple of times," she says, an applicant risks being rejected.

A Growing Problem

While veterans of recent wars have had lower homelessness rates compared to other vets, those numbers are rising. The majority of homeless veterans are male, suffer from mental illness or recurring disorders, abuse drugs and/or alcohol, and are from and live in lower-income areas.

The federal government launched an initiative in 2010 to eliminate veteran homelessness by 2015, with voucher programs and other forms of assistance. Here in Austin, Green Doors runs Transitional Veter­ans Re-Entry Housing, which caters directly to veterans and their families. Front Steps, a nonprofit organization which provides services to the homeless, administers the federal government's Supportive Ser­vices for Veteran Families in Austin.

"We look into housing for clients at fair market value. It's based on referral, and we take veterans based on a vulnerability scale," explains Tu Giang, SSVF program manager for Front Steps. "Once we complete intake, that individual gets with a case manager [and is assessed for current needs]. We've really ramped up our resources, with a lot of aggressive and concerted outreach. What we really want to do is more community engagement and landlord engagement."

Support through the city's OneKeyATX program is needed, says Podowski. "We need more traction, asking all the landlords to designate one unit. If every property owner or landlord in Austin designated one unit [for a veteran], we'd have double the amount of units available. No one is asking for a free unit."

For these programs, permanent housing and stability are only part of the solution. Podowski explains that reconnection is para­mount. "They're going to be learning skills, and feel empowered to reach back out to family. A lot of that comes when they have their own housing. They feel important, and that they have value."

A Battle on Several Fronts

Complicating re-entry further is the difficulty veterans face accessing adequate medical care. "The VA [system] is a culture in itself," says Edgar Whitfield, an Austin resident and Air Force veteran of 28 years.

The issues at the Austin Outpatient Clinic are numerous and well-documented. An April Austin American-Statesman headline put it succinctly: "Wait List at Austin VA Clinic Nearly Double National Average." Talking to Army veteran and University of Texas IT specialist Kyle Peoples, the service is not worth waiting for. "I just drive to Temple. Here in Austin, it's going to be at least a four-hour wait. You might get up, see a doctor, sit back down, see another, sit back down. In Temple, you just go and you'll see a doctor in 30 minutes. [In Austin] you might have 20 people ahead of you, and one doctor." (When contacted by the Chronicle, a VA representative declined to comment.)

Veterans are also leaving the military without having received proper treatment during their time in service. Seeking help for ailments, such as markers for PTSD, can prove hazardous to a career, says Whitfield. "One thing you have to look at is, while they're on active duty, say you're an aircraft mechanic, and you seek help for things that are bothering you, you could no longer work in that field. They can't trust you.

"You could lose your security clearance. Then, they have you doing things like cutting grass and stuff like that. So people are going to say, 'Man, I'm not going [to mental health].' Now, the military will tell you there is no stigma attached to going to mental health. Let me tell you something: Any time you go to a military hospital dispensary, your name goes on the hospital log that the commander gets. If it's not an injury, it's an illness – and what is your illness? They're going to find out, and they're going to relieve you of your job. They tell people they are doing everything in their power, that you can walk in, and you can do this and do that. But, come on."

A local active military officer, who spoke with the Chronicle on the condition of anonymity, agrees with Whitfield that there's a fear of stigma. "I have one friend, he's out of the military, he doesn't want to get help, because he does not want to be labeled with having PTSD. He thinks that will hinder him as it relates to getting a job."

"There is mistrust [among veterans]. They only want to give you medications," seconds Minnie Bowie-Garcia, who is the minority veterans coordinator at the Austin Outpatient Clinic. "Second of all, you tell them a little of what's going on, and they want to put you on anti-depressants or a sleep pill. They aren't addressing the problems of what's going on."

She notes that there are additional issues for older Latinos. "[When I started] I was told only one percent of Latinos would ever use the VA. Why? Because of the language barrier. [Many Latinos] had not graduated from high school, and spoke predominantly Spanish. They came back and went to the barrios. To this day, I see veterans who don't come because they don't know how to fill out the forms in the packets."

If cultural disconnection is an issue today, it seems likely to continue. According to the VA, the veteran population will decrease to 14.5 million by 2040, coinciding with overall reduction in force. However, the percentage of minority veterans will increase, from 21% in 2011, to 34% in 2040, coinciding with the uptick in minority recruitment, and they will have higher instances of income-related issues.

Intersecting Complications

Although historically called upon in crisis mode, during which the need for able-bodied men outweighed the tendency to discriminate against racial minorities, blacks and Latinos have been eager to join the military for a variety of reasons. Black slaves enlisted to temporarily escape their normal, imminently hazardous duties. Free blacks and Latinos joined for the consistent pay and, more importantly, to gain increased standing in society.

The Vietnam War featured the first completely integrated military. This did not mean integrated attitudes, however, as institutional change was slow to arrive. Minorities were still treated less than equally on all fronts, and at that time, took most of the bullets.

Whitfield, who is African-American, speaks frankly about precedents set during Vietnam, in which he served two tours. "When we went from conscription to an all-volunteer force, that's where the change really occurred. During Vietnam, the draft was still there. A lot of African-Americans were still caught up in the draft. That was one of the things Dr. King was fighting about: Why are there such disproportionate amounts of African-Americans being killed?"

Upward mobility through the ranks was fraught with peril and conspicuousness. "You had to be in the right place in the right time to get promotions," explains Whitfield, who joined the Air Force in 1960. "But then you had to test, which leveled the playing field quite a bit. Then, after they saw black and brown [airmen] advancing, [there were changes], things that didn't have anything to do with your job, or your ability. You had to be very observant. Little subtleties would be there, and you may not recognize it."

Although progress has been made since, racial disparities persist. Paralleling the civilian experience for minorities, segregation, lack of opportunity, and inequality in training and education prevail. Though illiteracy has lessened to nil among recruits, other educational deficits remain. "If you look at the people who establish the rules and regulations, they are the educated ones. They write and develop things in such a way that they can maintain control," claims Whitfield.

Though it is now much easier for minorities to gain promotions, compared to Whit­field's generation, "subtleties" remain. The RAND National Defense Research Insti­tute's 2012 report, "A New Look at Gender and Minority Differences in Officer Career Progression in the Military," concluded that black men are less likely to be promoted than white men, but (in contrast to an earlier study) are more likely to be retained after promotion.

The active military officer describes a questionable selection process. "If I'm up for a job, and I have the same file as a Caucasian, the Caucasian will get the job. Now, if the panel [is mixed] you could get hired. But if the panels are majority Caucas­ian, they will likely pick the white person, unless they are trying to reach some type of quota."

Diversity among military leadership remains a core deficiency, which, to the leadership's credit, has been recognized. Its importance isn't merely tied into performance. The Army, as well as the other services, is fighting an optics battle, against the perception of the military as a "white" institution. Minorities fear they will be immediately placed on the front lines, an idea based in considerable historical legitimacy.

Veteran specialist Mack Graham and supportive housing coordinator Megan Podowski (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Uneven Playing Field

The services are reasonably confident they mold their members into productive people. "The military – if I can use the analogy of a piece of wood – they will sand him down and buff him, paint him and put some polyurethane on him, shine him up," says Whitfield. "They change your whole focus, your way of thinking. You're constantly learning, being educated." But part of the issue is the state of the wood before it makes it to the military: What about the wood before it hits the sander?

Societal effects on potential service members before entry, including whites from low-income areas, require much more emphasis than has been previously given, at least publicly. For minorities specifically, there are additional barriers that the military cannot mold, or sweat out of an enlistee (or young officer) in basic training. Simply put, large numbers of black and brown Americans will enter the military already traumatized, and likely from a young age.

Though Austin's violent crime rate is lower than the average for a large city, it disproportionately affects low-income black and Latino neighborhoods. In data from 2013 and 2014, 59% of murder victims in Austin were black or Latino, even though, according to city of Austin demographic data, 34% of the population is Latino, and 7.2% black. The nearly constant crime and random violence are creating a nationwide subset of distressed citizens, mainly of black and Latino origins.

Lack of education is another problem disproportionately facing minorities. Texas school systems have been a lightning rod ever since the George W. Bush administration's inception of the landmark No Child Left Behind Act in 2001.

By and large, No Child Left Behind has created a test-heavy system, not directly focused on commitment to learning, but to meeting minimum scores. Instead of leveling the playing field, it has highlighted exactly where the inequalities are, and exacerbated their depths. The primary and secondary schools located in Austin's lower-income areas, as in most U.S. metros, are largely underfunded and lack ancillary financial support from parents and other benefactors.

In Texas, change is unlikely, at least in the near future. In the most recently approved budget, $1.5 billion was allocated for state school growth, about half of what was requested, in efforts to position schools on more equal footing. According to a 2014 Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report, Texas has cut spending at a 9.4% clip, or $390 per student (inflation-adjusted).

Nothing illuminates the educational failure more than the numbers from the most taken standardized test in America, the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Bat­tery, or ASVAB. The battery includes some vocational testing; however, pass and placement are determined by the qualifying subsets in the Armed Forces Qualification Test or AFQT. These four subtests (Math Know­ledge, Arithmetic Reasoning, Word Knowledge, and Paragraph Comprehension) quantify current knowledge and ability – hard numbers, not potential. Within each branch lay cumulative scoring ranges, which shrink or deepen the pool of jobs and additional training available to each enlistee, pending a passing score.

In a study completed by the Education Trust, minority applicants, especially black and Latino, have much higher failure rates than whites. In Texas alone, the failure rates for blacks (33%) and Latinos (28%) tower that of whites (16%). It is reasonable to believe that minorities, like whites, score into a moderate curve, which means that most minorities who do score high enough for entry will likely have just crossed the proverbial plane, with relatively few entrants (by percentage) elevating themselves into category ranges that make them eligible for enlistment bonuses, additional college funding, and other opportunities for advanced training. And looking ahead, careers located in the bottom rungs of the military ladder will likely not translate to promising civilian careers, or may not serve them financially in the private sector. These problems will be on top of the normalized, day-to-day discrimination minorities will likely face, in and out of uniform.

The lack of quality schooling will not only follow the enlistee, but the government has also effectively reinforced those inequities, ball-and-chaining black and brown candidates to their educational level at entry, along with the other relative environmental effects experienced. In fact, there will be no escape from the scoring (and the career path determined by it) during service – even if a soldier is successful in his field, he isn't likely to be able to switch to a more prestigious track.

The Return

After service, minority (specifically black and brown) veterans will have a more difficult time readjusting to civilian life, for a variety of reasons. They will likely not have access or networks to gain resources, nor will they have various levels of support, financial or otherwise – all hallmarks of successful re-entry. Most importantly, the lack of education and outright racial discrimination will severely limit chances at positive outcomes. Then, there are the worst possible scenarios.

Black and brown veterans of the Afghan­istan and Iraq wars are vastly overrepresented in PTSD counts, at a staggering 29% of nondeployed and 42% of deployed veterans. Dating back to Vietnam, African-American and Latino service members are more likely, by percentage, to develop PTSD or other battle-related trauma disorders. For Vietnam vets, according to Veterans Affairs, some of the psychological issues stem from identification with the Vietnamese, alongside higher exposure to combat.

Under the Veterans' Benefits Improve­ment Act of 1994, a host of changes were made for the improvement of veteran affairs. Listed under Title V, the Center for Minority Veterans evaluates programs and disseminates information pertaining to minorities. Given the history of treatment for minority veterans, there's much to be said concerning a committee added into a bill, principally serving Persian Gulf issues and adjudication improvements, as a "miscellaneous provision." Needless to say, there have been considerable challenges to being heard, especially here in Austin, according to Whitfield, who's the chair of the local committee. "Minnie [Bowie-Garcia] and I, and a group of others, fight every day.

"They still have this committee in D.C. In our meeting minutes, any time we encounter any problem that's, say, systemwide, we put it in. Our minutes are supposed to go from here to Temple, to Waco, and on to D.C. I don't get any feedback from D.C. that says whether or not these things were elevated to them. I try to work within the system, but sometimes when you're not getting the results that you hope for, you have to go outside the system."

A Word of Advice

Yet military service can have its benefits for service members of all ethnicities. "I really grew up in the Air Force," acknowledges Whitfield. "My parents taught me to observe things around me. I took their advice, and I survived in the military. I had one Tech Sergeant, a white guy, from somewhere in Texas, close to Dallas. He and I worked in the same office. He said, 'You know, my dad was wrong [speaking negatively about African-Americans]. You have shown me just by your conduct, and the way you act, that he was wrong. You can't just put all black people in a certain category.'

"But he said, 'Let me tell you something: Always know what your rights are and what you can and cannot do. And know your job backward and forward, and know your regulations.' That was the best advice I had received from a white guy. That, and what my parents taught me, helped me survive. I ran into racial prejudice and biases throughout my military career. But I knew how to avoid the pitfalls, of striking back [against discrimination] and not having anyone behind you. In military terms, or ideas, you always have someone checking your six."

For the future enlistee, Whitfield offers some lasting advice: "Recognize that this [discrimination] is real, number one. Number two, you're going to be a better person coming out. Be observant. Know right from wrong, and listen. Learn as much as you possibly can – that's going to determine whether you live or die, whether you do or don't survive. Get your education while you're in the military. Take advantage of the benefits. If I'm being honest, I'd tell them, 'Get your college education, and then go into the military.' It puts you in a leadership position, and exposes you to a lot more, because of the [career] tracking as opposed to basing it [solely] on your [ASVAB] score."

The anonymous officer concurs with Whitfield's initial point. "I came back from Afghanistan, and you know, I'm sitting in a New York airport, and like not even 48 to 72 hours earlier, I'm getting shot at, and I'm in the thick of things, and [now] I'm in the New York airport and just watching people buy Starbucks and all that, and I'm like, 'They have no idea what is really going on over there.' [In basic training,] they tell you that, within the next three years, out of the 20 or 30 people in the platoon, 10 would do their time and get out, three people would be dead, three people would [wash out], and the other five would get to go on in their careers. [It was] just to let us know, like, there's a war out there. You are going to go."

He encourages the future service member to embrace togetherness and bonds forged through adversity. "You're going to have to have patience. You're going to have to dig deep. You're going to have to do things you probably think you'd never do. But you're not alone. It was 20 or 30 of us doing it, sleeping outside with just our sleeping bag and a shovel. It's not like I did it by myself. You embrace the suck with whoever you're with, and that's kind of how you develop those relationships."

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veterans, Edgar Whitfield, Megan Podowski, Green Doors, Tu Giang, Front Steps, OneKeyATX, Minnie Bowie-Garcia, racial inequality

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