Recently an article on the Huffington Post posited that service in the United States military leads to the “unfortunate side effect” of developing racial prejudices, a stance the writer supported by explaining that his uncle was a police officer in the NYPD, and also prejudiced. I wish I could offer you a more logical explanation for his 800-word diatribe full of admissions of ignorance and veiled attempts at disrespecting those who have gone into harm’s way on behalf of others, but the best he could offer was a story he’d heard about veterans serving as security for white nationalists in Charlottesville, and the instances he heard his uncle (who was a police officer, rather than a veteran) utter racial slurs in private.
Why didn’t I include his name or the title of the article, when this piece is obviously intended to serve as a response to it? It’s simple. Here in the digital realm of professional writing, reach is what matters. I might think a topic is really important, research it for hours, and put together a think-piece I hope will change minds, but if people don’t click on it, it sends a clear message to me as a writer, and my editors, that the public at large just isn’t interested in hearing about the topic, or about what I have to say about it. In short, name recognition, links to articles, social media shares, and the like are truly the currency we deal in – and this idiot doesn’t deserve any of that for making a blanket statement about millions of Americans under the guise of being a progressive.
That term, “American” is of particular import in this case, as the writer of that piece proudly touts his renounced U.S. citizenship in his Twitter bio. On Huffington Post, he omits that in favor of calling himself a “Writer, musician, Trump Resister, food snob.” Clearly, this proud former American still feels he’s the right man to decry American veterans as racist, despite his credentials seemingly more in keeping with writing reviews on pictures of food on Instagram, but because of the traction his article received, I think it’s important to address the content of his piece, if not the writer.
I’ve lived a lot of places, but I claim Bennington, Vermont as my home. It’s where I spent my formative years, and when I close my eyes and imagine a peaceful place, it’s the rolling Green Mountains of southern Vermont that I picture. Vermont is a lot of things: beautiful, serene, picturesque and cow-filled – but one thing it often isn’t, is diverse.
Now, that isn’t to say prejudice exists in the vacuum created by a mostly homogeneous community – in fact, Vermont is pretty progressive itself, but that doesn’t change the fact that when you look at pictures of my graduating high school class, most people look awfully alike. So when I joined the Marines, and arrived in my first duty station in Twentynine Palms, California as the only non-Spanish speaking person in my shop, one might expect that I experienced quite a bit of culture shock. The same might be said about my time playing football on Marine Corps teams, where at one point, my skin color, as compared to my fellow teammates, earned me the loving nickname of “Casper,” because we were pretty short on folks of my particular pigment.
The thing is… I didn’t experience any kind of culture shock, because the culture I experienced in the Marines was one that didn’t place any value whatsoever on race. Cliché as it may sound, the old Marine Corps adage that says “we’re all just light green and dark green” applied to my experiences in uniform throughout. In fact, as I made my way through training and multiple duty stations, my best friends mostly weren’t even born in this country; they were Marines like Kirkwood, who was born in South Africa and enlisted by way of Tennessee (just imagine what that conjoined accent sounded like), or Runsewe, who was a first generation American with a Nigerian father. Betances, who trained me for my black belt and remains one of my closest friends to this day, was born in the Dominican Republic, before he left his home to find a better life in America, which for him, included serving the country he was proud to call his new home. These Marines didn’t all share my background, religion, race, or politics in many cases – but we all shared a love for our country, a willingness to sacrifice, and the ability to work together despite our differences.
The military is not a place that encourages, let alone tolerates, racial prejudice, but rather than continue to dispute the claims of some nobody that doesn’t seem to have ever interacted with an actual veteran, I’d like to draw attention to the inherent prejudice his article really did shine a light on: the perception many Americans have of veterans.
Perhaps the most offensive portion of the article that removed the Huffington Post’s last bit of credibility in my mind was its supposition that PTSD is probably to blame for the racism said author believes to be inherent to veterans. This idea, that most veterans are leading lives like John Rambo at the beginning of “First Blood,” wandering from town to town on a razor’s edge and barely keeping it together is, in many ways, the modern perception of American veterans. In the minds of many, we, as a group, are now worthy of your pity, rather than your contempt; as was the case in my father’s generation, but nonetheless, we’re dangerous, and must be kept at arm’s length.
It’s this idea, that we as Americans can slap a yellow ribbon on our car and sleep soundly at night knowing that “we’ve done our part for the troops,” hurts veterans transitioning out of service far more than the mental anguish some face as a result of their experiences. Just imagine walking into a job interview with a person that believes service makes you racist sitting across the table from you, or going to a parent teacher conference where the teacher assumes you’re a threat to the safety of your children because you once carried a rifle in the service of your country. These are the perceptions veterans face in the polite, pitied looks received from those with the best of intentions, and that’s without delving into the times I’ve been called a “baby killer” in crowded bars in patriotic cities like Boston.
So no, unnamed writer who will disappear into blogger obscurity after your 15 minutes of veteran-hating garbage fueled fame fizzles out of the internet’s collective consciousness, we vets aren’t racist by nature. Some veterans, I’m sure, are racist, because there are millions of us, and a certain percentage of any population is as ignorant and biased as you are, but that ideology certainly wasn’t born in the service – but I’m glad you shared your perspective, because there are probably some good-hearted Americans out there with a skewed perspective of us vets thanks to things like your article, and it’s given me a chance to address the topic to them.
Having served in the United States Marine Corps remains deeply important to me – it made me the man that I am today, and led me to my dream career. It allowed me to see almost two dozen countries, to meet people from different cultures, religions, and ideologies. The Marine Corps taught me that, in every country, there are other people just like me, and if anything quells prejudice, it’s got to be seeing yourself in others.
But in order to do so, you’ve first got to admit that maybe, just maybe, you don’t already know it all because your uncle was a cop once. Maybe, just maybe, you should interact with people from the group you intend to disparage, get to know them, find those commonalities.
Because from where I’m sitting, any article tossing about negative generalizations about a group of people who share a common background is an example of the very prejudice writers like nameless here claim to be fighting against. If anything, people like that writer have a lot more in common with the white nationalist vets he spoke out against, than those veterans have with the rest of us.
Image courtesy of SOFREP staff writer Derek Gannon