Serving While Black: When Military Service Fails to Deliver Equality

Sgt. Donald Young places a U.S. flag over the casket of Sgt. La David Johnson during his burial service in Hollywood, Fla. Mourners remembered not only a U.S. soldier whose combat death in Africa led to a political fight between President Donald Trump and Florida Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, but his three comrades who died with him./Matias J. Ocner/Miami Herald via AP

( – Comfort, sleep, relationships, health, stability and time are just some of the things veterans said they’ve had to sacrifice to serve this country.

Bernice Hearn enlisted in the Army in 1970 and retired in 1999, making a career out of her service. (Courtesy of Bernice Hearn)
Bernice Hearn, who was born and raised in Warner Robins, Ga., said the lowest point of her 29-year-long career in the Army was leaving her children during the Gulf War.

“We were on standby forever, and you had to be prepared for somebody to come and get your kids if they call on you,” she said. “One night, my husband and I got that call.”

After learning that she and her husband would be deployed to Iraq for nine months, Hearn mournfully asked her sister to pick up her two daughters from Fort Bragg in North Carolina. They were 5 and 7 years old at the time.

“Seeing my children wave bye to me from a bus window, not knowing whether I was gonna make it back to them, that was the worst part,” she recalled.

Leaving her children for months during the Gulf War was the hardest part of Bernice Hearn’s military service.(Courtesy of Bernice Hearn)
Hearn and her husband made it back home safely, but she still remembers how agonizing that time was. Now, at 62 years old, one of her favorite pastimes is spending time with her grandchildren. She considers herself blessed.

People of all professions are required to exhibit high degrees of responsibility, but the sacrifice required by military service takes the concept a giant step further. It involves giving up things of great personal value for the sake of others.

Servicemen and women know that all too well.

When asked if she felt appreciated as a veteran, Denise Douglas gave an honest but sobering answer.

“For African American people, we serve our country and come out expecting things to be different for us, or just Black people period,” she said. “But it’s not. It’s the same. It’s like you have to come back to reality.”

For Douglas, that reality involves getting thanked for her service in one moment, and in the next being overwhelmed with headlines of racial discrimination.

“I have Black sons, and I worry constantly about them,” she said. “A lot of prejudice that was dormant is now coming alive. Some people are surprised; others aren’t because they know that it was always there.”

A Kingstree, S.C., native, Douglas moved to Miami after retiring from the Marines in 2001. At 42, she also worries about veterans experiencing homelessness in the city and throughout the country. To her, “it just isn’t fair.”

Memorial Day is meant to honor our country’s military heroes, and remind us all that the role they play is crucial. They fight to protect our freedoms and put the greater good above themselves. But the sacrifices veterans make, especially those of color, can feel underappreciated in the grand scheme of race relations in the U.S.

About 43% of the 1.3 million men and women on active duty in the United States armed forces are people of color.

At the end of 2020, the Defense Department’s Diversity and Inclusion Board released a report to identify ways to improve diversity in the military. The report found that enlisted ranks of the active and military reserve were “slightly more racially and ethnically diverse than its U.S. civilian counterparts.” However, diversity is virtually nonexistent at the top of the ranks.

The breakdown of all active commissioned officers is 73% white; 8% each Black and Hispanic; 6% Asian; 4% multiracial; and less than 1% Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, American Indian or Alaska Native.

Racism within the military also appears to be on the rise, according to a 2019 survey of 1,630 active-duty subscribers to Military Times. The survey found that 36% of those polled and 53% of minority service members said they had seen examples of white nationalism or ideologically driven racism among their fellow troops. The numbers were up significantly from the same poll conducted in 2018, when 22% of all respondents reported personally witnessing white nationalism.

An investigation by the Associated Press found that the military’s judicial system has no explicit category for hate crimes, making it difficult to quantify crimes motivated by prejudice.

The Defense Department also has no way to track the number of troops ousted for extremist views, despite its repeated pledges to root them out. More than 20 people linked to the Jan. 6, 2021, siege of the U.S. Capitol were found to have military ties.

As a Black American, there are some hardships from which even serving your country doesn’t exempt you. But these issues aren’t new.

Thousands of Black men who served in the Civil War, World War I and World War II were targeted because of their service and threatened, assaulted or lynched, according to a 2017 Equal Justice Initiative report.

One was Sgt. Isaac Woodard, a uniformed WWII veteran who was headed home on a bus in 1946. He was removed and beaten by a white South Carolina police chief, leaving Woodard permanently blind.

In 1962, Cpl. Roman Ducksworth was killed by police while riding a bus from Maryland to his home in Mississippi. The bus driver called a white police officer to awaken Ducksworth, who had fallen asleep, according to Jerry Mitchell, founder of the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting. The two struggled, and the officer shot and killed Ducksworth.

“His skin color trumped his status as a military officer,” Mitchell said. “It goes throughout history.”

A frame capture from a Windsor, Va., police body camera, shows Lt. Caron Nazario being helped by an EMT after he was pepper-sprayed by police during a traffic stop in April 2021.(Windsor Police via AP)
A more recent example of mistreatment is the story of Lt. Caron Nazario, who was harassed by law enforcement officers in a rural area of Virginia in early April. Officers pulled over the Army lieutenant for reasons unknown. The encounter turned into a heated exchange, and the officers drew their guns while demanding that Nazario step out of the car.

At one point Nazario said, “I’m serving this country, and this is how I’m treated?”

Police Officer Joe Gutierrez responded, “Yeah well, guess what? I’m a veteran too, and I know how to obey.”

Nazario said he was afraid to get out, to which Gutierrez replied: “You should be.”

Within minutes, Nazario was pepper-sprayed, struck in the knees to force him to the ground and handcuffed. No charges were ever filed.

For Black former service members, it can be incredibly disheartening to realize they fought for an American dream that isn’t fully realized for people who look like them. This is true of extreme cases – like Nazario’s – and other instances where Black veterans experience microaggressions or inequality.

Leroy Goolsby, a 70-year-old Georgia native, joined the U.S. Air Force right out of high school at the beginning of the Vietnam War. He said that as a young man he wanted to travel the world and honorably serve his country, but he wasn’t prepared for everything that entailed.

“You had to be away from your family for a long time, and sometimes you had to deal with prejudiced supervisors,” he said. “Sometimes you got the hard jobs compared to a white guy.”

As a heavy aircraft equipment mechanic, the more difficult jobs involved working in extreme weather conditions – rain, snow, heat.

After serving for 21 years, Goolsby retired from the Air Force and pursued a career in radiation therapy. His transition out of the military was even more difficult than his transition into it. He said at first it was hard to find a job, and some of his comrades couldn’t get out of the “war mentality.”

“When we went into the military back in them days, they promised you everything,” he said. “But after you got out they cut everything, and it was hard to get medical treatment and benefits. It could be way better.”

Indicative of how difficult it can be to transition into civilian life, veterans make up about 8% of the country’s homeless population. About 43% of veterans experiencing homelessness are people of color, and Black Americans make up around 33% of this population, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

Even through all of these struggles, a majority of veterans are grateful for the opportunities the military gave them.

Joshua Ramirez, who enlisted in the Army Reserves in 2006, said the hardest part of his service was being away from his family during basic training. (Courtesy of Joshua Ramirez)
Joshua Ramirez, a 28-year-old born in New York and raised in Miami, says the military made him a better person.

“I learned discipline, money management skills, leadership skills, the list goes on,” he said. “To this day, people in the military are also close personal friends of mine, even people from basic training. You all go through the same struggles together. It’s pretty much like a brotherhood.”

After getting his associate degree in 2016, Ramirez decided he wanted a change of pace. He enlisted in the Army Reserves and applied to local law enforcement agencies after returning to South Florida. As a man of Cuban Afro-Latino descent, and a current Florida Highway Patrol officer, it is disappointing for him to hear about instances of police brutality and inequality.

“I hate to see ‘bad apples’ and bad policing,” he said “Thankfully in Miami, I don’t experience that, because it’s like a melting pot and there’s so much diversity here. People respect me as an officer, and I respect them.”

Ramirez has had to sacrifice time with his family, which includes his wife and 1-year-old son, but ultimately joining the Army Reserves has had a positive impact on his life.

“Even if you do research online or watch YouTube videos, nothing can prepare you for some of it,” he said. “I would still say for anyone who’s undecided, or not sure about what they want to do for their career, they should join the military.”

Betty Brooks, originally from Evergreen, Ala., had her first child at 16. She always dreamed of seeing the world, and doing more with her life than staying in her small town.

Betty Brooks enlisted in the Army in 1989, served for two years and was a part of Operation Desert Storm.(Courtesy of Betty Brooks)
She joined the Army in 1989. In just the two years that she served, she was deployed to Saudi Arabia for Operation Desert Storm. There, she found God, her purpose and her current husband. Now at 55, with a happy family in south Miami-Dade, she can look back at the hardship she experienced and understand its purpose.

“Like with anything, there were some difficult times,” Brooks said. “But I can say I grew up and learned a lot. It changed my life.”

When asked if they’d do it all again, all of the veterans interviewed by The Miami Times said yes. Serving in the military is fulfilling in many ways, but that doesn’t negate the fact that race relations must be addressed, according to them.

“The fact is, for hardworking people who have served this country, racism shouldn’t be a concern,” Hearn said.

But, unfortunately, it is.

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