When Richard Brookshire finished his tour as a combat medic in Afghanistan in 2011, he couldn’t wait to get on with his life. He enrolled in Fordham University and earned a degree in political science, graduating magna cum laude and going on to earn a master’s degree in public policy at Columbia University.
Brookshire had been out of graduate school only a few months when, in 2017, amid a rising tide of violence against Black communities in the U.S., a white supremacist brutally killed a 66-year-old Black man in New York City. The murderer was also an Army veteran. And, chillingly, he had gone through basic training with Brookshire, deployed in the same brigade, even left Afghanistan at the same time.
For Brookshire, who is Black and gay, the realization – at a moment of increasing racist rhetoric and violence across the United States – that he served alongside someone who harbored such rage unearthed painful memories of racist aggressions during his service, plunging him into a frightening mental health crisis.
“I was overwhelmed by it all – by PTSD, by this experience of having had to be a shell of myself to survive the racist violence of the military culture,” Brookshire said.
As he set out to get better, Brookshire became aware that not only did many other Black veterans need the kind of help he was getting, they weren’t getting it, and they weren’t empowered to advocate for themselves. He began to realize, he said, that their experiences were not unlike those of generations of Black men who have served in the military – unremembered, unrecognized and, particularly in the case of millions of Black veterans who served during the Jim Crow era of racial segregation, unrewarded.
Out of that realization came a passion that Brookshire, now 35, has dedicated himself to ever since. He is co-founder of Black Veterans Project, a nonprofit whose mission is to unearth the stories of Black men and women who served in the U.S. armed forces, to conduct research into the unique barriers they face, and to advocate for restorative justice for Black veterans denied benefits. In 2020, amid the national reckoning following the murder of George Floyd by police, he also helped found Black Veterans Empowerment Council, a coalition of more than 15 Black veterans organizations working to advance legislation that would help mitigate the inequities in Black veterans’ housing, education, employment and health care.
As of today – Veterans Day – Black Veterans Project is in the early stages of planning a storytelling venture designed to elevate the experiences of Black veterans as never before. The plan is to conduct in-person, on-camera interviews of many of the more than 2 million Black veterans across the country. Eventually, the group hopes to create a multimedia digital monument to the stories of Black service members “who, since the beginning of this nation,” Brookshire said, “have served their country even when it did not serve them.”
Shifting the narrative
The efforts of Black Veterans Project complement those of the Southern Poverty Law Center. While the Project is working to uncover untold stories that can help narrow the racial divide, the SPLC has since 2015 been leading the campaign against long-told stories that broaden that divide, namely those embodied in the thousands of Confederate symbols at military installations and other public spaces.
The campaign has had success.
In October, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin signed off on an independent commission’s recommendations to rename or remove all of the hundreds of Department of Defense assets that commemorate the Confederacy. His order calls for completing the renaming or removals by Jan. 24, 2024. But only a handful have been removed to date. Meanwhile, more are coming to light. Still other racist commemorations, such as a bronze plaque prominently mounted at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York that includes an image of a hooded figure and the words “Ku Klux Klan,” are not subject to Austin’s order because they do not explicitly honor the Confederacy.
“The movement to address the lack of recognition and compensation for Black veterans is certainly connected to efforts to shift the narrative and change people’s notions about who our military heroes should be,” said Lecia Brooks, chief of staff and culture for the SPLC. “If we hope to build a multiracial, inclusive democracy then the first step is, we need these stories, we need them to be documented, we need the truth. You can’t rebuild on top of a foundation of white supremacy and lies.”
Slowed down by the COVID-19 pandemic and by the need to raise funds, the effort by Black Veterans Project to collect the stories of Black veterans has only recently launched. One of the co-founders of the group, a filmmaker, has conducted several initial interviews, and the group is working on designing a website for the archive.
But the work of the Project doesn’t stop there. For the past two years the group has thrown itself, working with other Black veterans groups and the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School, into a parallel campaign to prove that Black veterans have for generations had unequal access to benefits after they leave military service – and to file lawsuits seeking recompense.
The task is immense. Historical racial inequities in veterans benefits stretch back to integration of the armed services in the late 1940s. Black service members who fought in World War II were either denied or prevented from taking full advantage of housing and educational benefits through the GI Bill. Those benefits were offered to millions of veterans transitioning to civilian life. But when the bill was being formulated, members of Congress from the Deep South insisted that the law be implemented at the state level. That enabled those states, home to the majority of returning Black service members, to deny or grant significantly smaller GI benefits to Black veterans. Among other disparities, the veterans were often steered away from predominantly white four-year colleges and toward vocational and other nondegree programs.
Researchers from the Institute for Economic and Racial Equity at Brandeis University recently calculated that the GI benefits secured by Black individuals were worth, on average, 40% of those that white individuals received. This produced long-term disparities, the study found.
Black veterans of the Korean War had similar experiences with the program. Advocates say the generational effects of that discrimination, in terms of wealth, are still being felt today.
‘Peek behind the curtain’
Last Veterans Day, U.S. Reps. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts and James Clyburn of South Carolina, along with Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia, introduced the GI Bill Restoration Act, which directs the secretary of Veterans Affairs to extend further housing and education assistance to the surviving spouses and direct descendants of Black World War II vets.
The legislation never received a hearing.
Some inequities in the allocation of benefits still exist. A review by the Yale Law School legal clinic of federal veterans benefits data shows that Black service members’ post-Sept. 11 disability claims have been granted at lower rates than their white counterparts. In April, the White House released a summary of a new U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs equity action plan. In it, the agency acknowledged race and gender disparities for veteran benefit access.
“The U.S. military continues to benefit from Black military service, and the country ascribes to this idea that serving in the military can help emancipate and uplift Black people, but you peek behind the curtain and you find that not only were Black vets denied access to the benefits of the GI Bill during Jim Crow, but Black veterans are less likely than their white counterparts to receive treatment for PTSD today,” Brookshire said. “Our country needs to answer the question of what it is doing about the fact that there is generational wealth that has been stripped, and continues to be stripped, from Black veterans who have served.”
‘Tied to this history’
For the core staff of about 15 people who make up Black Veterans Project, the pursuit of a true history of Black service members is deeply personal.
Brookshire comes from several generations of military service on his father’s side. His father, who left the family when Brookshire was a boy, served in Vietnam and stayed in the military through the Gulf War. His mother, born in Haiti, immigrated to the U.S. and served in the military in the 1980s. She raised Brookshire alone.
“I’m a Black vet,” Brookshire said. “I’m tied to this history. And I’ve always been raised to believe that the work that you do should be in service to the Black community, of service in the conversation about racial justice. A lot of this has been me wanting to better understand the history. And it is a way of taking my power back.”
Daniele D. Anderson, 32, met Brookshire through a mutual friend and ultimately became another co-founder of Black Veterans Project. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, she served as an officer in the Navy for more than five years. After leaving the military, Anderson earned a Master of Arts degree from Columbia University, focusing on Black social movements.
An Oklahoma City native, Anderson said she grew up hearing stories of life under segregation from her father, who attended segregated schools and later served in Vietnam alongside his two brothers.
Now pursuing a master’s degree in history, Anderson said the campaigns to seek restitution for Black veterans, to tell, disseminate and archive their stories and to remove symbols of the Confederacy from military installations are all efforts “to turn the tide on what has been largely ignorance of the magnitude of Black veterans’ service to this country.”
“Folks who served long before me have had to grin and bear it,” Anderson said. “These changes are long overdue and are the bare minimum to do right by the legacy of Black veterans. The military is one of the most trusted institutions in this nation. If we can’t get it right, I really don’t have much faith for the rest of our country.”
Picture at top: Daniele D. Anderson is co-founder of Black Veterans Project, which advocates for restorative justice for Black veterans, who have long been denied equal access to benefits. “Folks who served long before me have had to grin and bear it,” says Anderson, who served in the Navy for more than five years. “These changes are long overdue.” (Credit: Sarah Blesener)