For decades, tens of thousands of young African-Americans have joined the U.S. military in search of opportunities to better both their current circumstances and their prospects for the future. Few truly realize the horrors they’ll see on the battlefield or how profoundly their lives will be changed. It is an unfortunate truth that, for a variety of reasons, many soldiers return to civilian lives that are far worse off than they were before deployment.
Chronic unemployment, homelessness and mental trauma are the biggest contributing factors to the challenges that returning troops face. According to a report produced by the Veterans Administration in 2009, African-Americans accounted for 34% of the 136,334 veterans living in shelters and 23.8% of veterans living in poverty, compared to 14.7% of non-veterans living in poverty.
The VA Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships (CFBNP) is an agency within the Department of Veterans Affairs that works with religious- and community-based organizations around the nation to address the emotional, physical and economic issues that soldiers face once they've returned home.
Rev. E. Terri LaVelle, who heads the CFBNP, says that younger veterans in particular often don’t realize that, in addition to preparing for deployment, they must also make plans for their return, such as where they’re going to live and whether they can maintain their rent or mortgage while away.
“When someone is deployed, they have to make immediate decisions and there’s not enough time to plan. I’ve also come to realize that this is a much younger generation of veterans, especially with regard to Iraq and Afghanistan. They’re very young people who’ve not had a significant amount of life experiences and don’t have a good frame of reference to draw from in terms of being able to make such decisions,” she said.
If they don’t have a strong support system or family structure, they can easily return to no home and no job.
“If you’re young and went directly from high school to the military, you don’t even have a work history,” she added.
LaVelle’s department works with religious and secular nonprofits and community groups to help veterans translate the skills they developed in the military to the civilian workplace so that prospective employers understand what they can bring to the table. It also conducts four regional veterans' roundtables each year to provide groups with guidance about the services and programs that are available, such as home loan programs and GI Bill education benefits, and how to access them because too often returning troops are woefully unaware.
The VA also offers extensive mental health services. Unfortunately, many African-Americans are reluctant to take advantage of those services for fear of being stigmatized. According to the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, African-American vets seek professional help much less frequently than whites. The VA has developed a program that trains chaplains and mental health workers to work collaboratively in order to ensure that veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or other emotional disorders as a result of their deployment receive optimal treatment because there’s “both a spiritual and psychological component to healing.”
CFBNP also works with local clergy in African-American communities around the nation to help them to be able to recognize the warning signs of problems like PSTD and brain injury, and then identify the resources veterans and their families need to resolve them.
“The government can’t do everything and many times when people are stressed or facing a crisis, they turn to what’s familiar to them, such as religious and community groups,” LaVelle said. Helping those groups understand what the needs are and how they can collaborate with the VA and other federal agencies is paramount," she added.
(Photo: PAUL MOSELEY/MCT/Landov)