After Shootings, It’s Time to Look At Black Veterans

America is not supporting its black veterans. Could that have dire consequences?

By Alain Stephens & Hannah McBrideAugust 15, 2016 11:14 am| ,

Two shootings in July: one in Dallas, the other in Baton Rouge. First, a sniper shot down five police officers at a protest. A few weeks later a man ambushed and killed three police officers.

It’s been over a month since the two shootings, and there are still a lot more questions than answers. You can’t talk about one without mentioning the other – both incidents were eerily similar. There were two different shooters, both of them black, both upset about recent police violence. There is also another similarity, one that hasn’t been mentioned a lot – they were both black veterans.

The facts immediately bring up a lot of questions, ones about post-traumatic stress disorder, collective trauma and race. But there’s one question we haven’t found the answer for yet: What would push someone to commit such an act?

Justin Bohannon is a combat vet from the Army. At the time of his deployment he was also one of the few black soldiers in his unit. Bohannon said he experienced racist jokes, tougher punishments and a general sense of isolation. I asked him how he overcame racism on the front lines – he said he didn’t.

“The honest answer is that I kind of dealt with it and just focused on the mission, because I knew I needed to get back home,” Bohannon says. “But in the back of my mind, a lot of people like me felt like there was a good ol’ boy system and you were either part of the boys or not. So we knew there were two enemies. But we focused on the main threat. And the main threat was making sure we got back home from Iraq.”

Courtesy Justin Bohannon
Justin Bohannon (left) with his brother Jeremy Bohannon in December 2008.

Bohannon went on to experience many of the same things any soldier in combat would experience: periods of constant boredom, highlighted by moments of sheer terror, anger and loss. But he says the real struggle was when he got out of Army and came back.

“If you come from an area of poverty, or an area of minimal opportunity, and you go back to that area of minimal opportunity – it actually got worse,” Bohannon says. “Because now your minimal opportunity is with a lot more bills and whatever baggage you had coming out of the military. So whatever PTSD or trauma you may be experiencing – it’s going to be amplified by being low-income, it’s going to be amplified by not being qualified for positions, jobs, or opportunities in general.”

When Bohannon returned to civilian life, he was an unemployed single father, struggling with what to do next. Culturally, PTSD was something you just didn’t talk about. But Bohannon’s situation isn’t unique.

Benjamin Fleury Steiner, professor at the University of Delaware, has studied and written a book about African-American veterans. He says that systematically black veterans have a tougher time with employment, homelessness and finding treatment for things like PTSD.

“When you look at it in the context of racial oppression and poverty, why would this be surprising,” Steiner says. “If you had war trauma and you came home to community where you didn’t have support … it’s going to be much more difficult for you. Why wouldn’t that be addressed by the society?”

In fact, it has been addressed. In 2003 the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs released a video specifically about this topic.

But this doesn’t tell us what would make someone go out and commit a criminal act. There are millions of African-American veterans who have PTSD and are upset at the police – and they haven’t gone on a shooting spree.

Lee Ayers is a criminologist from Southern Oregon University. She says there was a study looking at factors that make up mass shooters.

“In 2001, a study was done by Meloy, Hempel, Mahondie, Gray, and they looked at a small group – 34 adolescents who were mass murderers, all male,” Ayers says.

The study described 71 percent of the group as loners, 48 percent had a preoccupation with weapons, a little more than 43 percent had been victimized or bullied, and 23 percent had documented psychiatric history of any kind. In other words, we don’t have an answer.

What is it that pushed these shooters to act? There isn’t a singular factor anyone can pinpoint, Ayers says.

Justin Bohannon says he doesn’t condone the shootings – his brother is a cop and anyone who goes about killing innocent people is flat wrong. But he says the motivation behind shootings, like those that happened last month, aren’t such mysteries to him.

“I don’t want to understand what happened with them,” Bohannon says. “But what I understand is I feel the resentment. I feel the anger. I feel the pain that every black male goes through. And then does it get amplified as a vet, struggling after they defended America? Yeah.”