STILL STANDING—Black female veterans tell their stories of discrimination, harassment and trauma

Four African American women veterans, who span four decades, want you to know that through it all, they are still standing.
Janet Wilson Carter served in the Army and Army Reserve from 1978-2002. Louise Walker-Sostre served in the Navy from 1986-1996. Erica Upshaw-Givner served in the Army from 1992-1997, and LaShaundra Hammonds served in the United States Marine Corps from 2001-2008. (LaShaundra Hammonds is the wife of the reporter for this story.)
After decades of what they call discrimination, racism, sexual harassment, sexual assault and sexual trauma, they are still standing.
“As an African American woman and a veteran you are definitely a rare breed.”
These are the words of LaShaundra Hammonds, a Marine Corps veteran. “It’s about constantly proving yourself as a woman, but not only a woman, a Black woman. You’re forced to become this masculine person you are not. You had to constantly keep your guard up and it hardened you. As a woman, you want to be soft and vulnerable, but being in the military it was a struggle. Here you are trying to fight for your country and your self-identity as well. Women veterans had to fight far too many battles. We had to fight our foreign enemies and domestic issues such as sexual harassment, sexual assault, and sexual trauma.”
When you hear the term “veteran,” do you often think of just “men” who served their country?
What about the countless numbers of courageous women who served this country? Or, more specifically, what about the African American women who endured so much to serve?
Louise Walker-Sostre said she endured racial discrimination soon after she began her journey in the Navy. “I remember my first duty station in Mississippi experiencing racism,” she told the New Pittsburgh Courier. “I was working with two Ku Klux Klan members who were active duty with me in the Navy. I remember another Klan member who worked with us turning on an engine that I was working on, ripping all the skin off of my hands.”
[pullquote]“The military is a very male-dominated place. When the world has conditioned the man to think they’re supposed to have what they want, when they want, and how they want it, it trickles down not just into the military, but into every arena.”
ERICA UPSHAW-GIVNER[/pullquote]She also spoke of having to fistfight men to stop from being sexually harassed, and how difficult it was to report these incidents.
Once she was discharged, she felt she didn’t get the benefits or the services her fellow counterparts received. When she first got out, she was a single mother with two kids. She struggled with getting on welfare. She spoke of how she was denied services because a supervisor felt she had enough already.
Walker-Sostre, a veteran on assistance, was denied childcare to further pursue her bachelor’s degree.
“Right then and there, my pride just went out the door. I told them, ‘How dare you? If it had not been for me, you wouldn’t have what you have now. You wouldn’t even have this job,’” Walker-Sostre said. She spoke of it being the same problem when she applied for disability. She talked of being spoken down to and feeling destroyed. She also felt the same way when she applied for the VA. It took her eight years to get in the VA as a disabled veteran.
Janet Wilson Carter is a retired Army Master Sergeant. “I’m just sitting here reflecting,” she said, during an interview with the Courier. “It’s been almost 40 years for me. When I went into the Army in 1978, it was certainly the good ole boy network.”
Wilson Carter spoke of being 18 or 19 years old, never really being away from home. “Given that I was a dark-skinned woman, I was looked at as if I was a man. I was ostracized because I was fairly quiet at that time and focused on what I had to do. But there were folks who would either taunt or harass me. With regards to sexual harassment, not even knowing what sexual harassment was at that time, I knew not to say anything. This was because if I would, I would have suffered consequences for my actions.”
Wilson Carter said she left active duty because she was angry. She was furious because she didn’t feel accepted. She then joined the Army Reserve and served until her retirement in 2002. “Seeing the types of things that I saw, would I say that I’m patriotic? Absolutely not, because of my experience.”
The question of “how it feels” to be an African American veteran was posed to the four veterans interviewed for this story.
“I never recognized being a veteran until about six years ago” Upshaw-Givner responded. “I just came home and blended in to the best of my ability. I didn’t want to discuss my experience. So I did my best not to acknowledge my military time. When it came to applications, job interviews, or if someone asked me, I said no.”
Upshaw-Givner, who served in the Army, had her first child at the age of 15. But that wouldn’t stop her from reaching her goals. Upshaw-Givner’s plan was to enlist into the Army to make a better life for herself and her daughter. She said she gave the Army everything, not knowing what she would get in return. “It was a huge sacrifice and learning experience. Through all the adversity and training, I’m still standing. Everything that I went through showed me what I am capable of accomplishing and overcoming.”
Upshaw-Givner continued: “The military is a very male-dominated place. When the world has conditioned the man to think they’re supposed to have what they want, when they want, and how they want it, it trickles down not just into the military, but into every arena.”
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