Shadows of Valor: The quiet battle against invisible wounds in America’s veterans

The gaze of Raeford Lawson, a 77-year-old veteran and proud Detroiter, often lingers on the past, but his thoughts of yesteryear aren’t ones of a nostalgic old man reminiscing his youth. Instead, this retired soldier’s flashbacks show signs of a man who has witnessed a lot of anguish.

“Vietnam was a different beast,” Lawson says with a gravelly timbre tone that resonates with the weight of memories, “but nothing prepared me for the war I returned to at home. I fought alongside white boys who called me ‘brother’ in the jungles, only to come back to Detroit and be reminded that, to some, my life mattered less.” Lawson’s words cut through the decades, a poignant reminder that for him, the battlegrounds of 1968 never fully receded into the annals of history.

The narrative of veterans’ post-service life is often a silent epidemic, a story etched in the shadows of their experiences. It’s a tale that unfolds in the quiet moments far removed from the fanfare of parades and the solemnity of memorials. Mental health issues among these individuals, particularly PTSD, emerge as a recurring theme in these stories, with Black veterans scripting their own unique chapters.

Mental health does not discriminate; it is a battlefront where all veterans can find themselves fighting. Yet, the experiences of Black veterans often carry additional layers, influenced by both visible and invisible societal factors. The clinical aspects of PTSD are well-documented: hyperarousal, re-experiencing, avoidance, negative cognition, and mood. However, beneath these clinical terms lie personal narratives of resilience and struggle.

Lawson’s skepticism about therapy is etched deeply into the furrows of his brow. “In our time, you dealt with your demons on your own; you didn’t pay someone to listen to them,” he explains, with a note of distrust lingering beneath his words. His perspective mirrors a generational narrative prevalent in the older Black community, where the admission of needing help is often seen as a sign of weakness. “We were supposed to be strong, especially after fighting for our country,” Lawson adds, as his voice trails off with evidence of deeper thoughts of deeper, unspoken battles on his mind.

Black veterans return from service to a country where their skin color is a uniform they never remove. This persistent identity can shape their interactions with the world, including the healthcare system. The cultural competence of mental health care providers is not just a bullet point on a checklist; it is vital to effectively reach veterans who might otherwise feel misunderstood by a system that doesn’t always reflect their reality.

In the quiet corners of his sister’s living room, where the dust dances in the slants of light that pierce the blinds, Raeford Lawson sits, a figure of resilience weathered by the storms of life. “You can’t outfight shadows,” he says, the air around him heavy with the unspoken realities of PTSD. “I came back from ‘Nam, but it never really left me. It’s like a silent echo that follows you.” Lawson’s sister, now his caregiver, watches over him with a mix of reverence and concern. She represents the silent strength of many in their community, providing care where the system has often failed to acknowledge the need.

The data paints a stark picture, but numbers often fail to capture the full spectrum of the veteran experience. Behind statistics are individuals with names, stories, and families. They carry their service not only in the form of memories but also in the less visible psychological imprints that can last a lifetime. When discussing Black veterans and PTSD, the conversation extends beyond the individual. It encompasses the communal spaces where these veterans seek solace and understanding.

These conversations, however, must start within our community, within our neighborhoods. The delicate balance of mental health can be easily unsettled by the fundamental uncertainties of life: shelter, food, and job security. For many, the strain of grappling with these basic needs can exacerbate underlying mental health issues, often becoming the tipping point in an already precarious struggle. It’s a fragile ecosystem where the lack of one element can disrupt the entire cycle of wellbeing. Recognizing this intricate interplay, organizations like MiSide, formerly known as Southwest Solutions, stand up to provide a safety net. Serving the communities within Wayne County and extending their reach to Macomb County, MiSide offers a comprehensive suite of resources. From job placement and rental assistance to addressing housing needs, transportation, providing sustenance, and offering counseling services, MiSide’s support is a critical lifeline that helps prevent the camel’s back from breaking, fostering resilience in the face of life’s pressing challenges.

“It’s embarrassing to know that they’re so many turkey giveaways but if a person does not have proper and an adequate home, how are they going to prepare the turkey?” Breaking through the ‘if you know, you know’ barrier isn’t just about awareness, it’s about connection,” explains Derick Toliver. With nearly a decade dedicated to supporting veterans, his current role as a veteran specialist involves more than just providing services; it’s about bridging the gap of silent understanding that often isolates veterans from the rest of society. “As a veteran myself, I always try to encourage my fellow veterans, being able to help them in their time of need is overwhelming but it’s a good feeling to provide resources. In a time of need when anyone is facing the lack of life’s basic necessities, this all leads to mental health. For example, how can someone be genuinely excited about getting offered a position and they don’t even know where they’re going to take a shower to get ready for work? That’s why I feel compelled to work in housing assistance and employment, to help with every part of life.”

The societal narrative around PTSD and veterans typically leans toward resilience and recovery. For Black veterans, this narrative is interwoven with the threads of racial identity, societal inequality, and historical context. The question is not just how PTSD manifests clinically but how the cultural backdrop of a veteran’s life influences their path to healing.

It is essential to consider how the perception of strength within the Black community might impact the willingness of these veterans to seek help. There is often a cultural stigma attached to vulnerability, particularly among men. “Veterans of color sometimes are too prideful to speak up and say they aren’t following the language of resource applications, let alone having the conversation of therapy,” said Toliver. How does this affect Black veterans who are grappling with mental health issues? To what extent does the “strong Black person” trope contribute to underreporting or under-treatment of PTSD among Black veterans?

New data from the Department of Veterans Affairs reveals a disparity in the allocation of health benefits, with Black veterans receiving assistance at a lower rate than white veterans. During the fiscal year 2023, the data shows 84.8% of Black veterans who sought physical or mental health benefits were granted to them, whereas 89.4% of white veterans applying for similar benefits were approved. This trend, as recorded by the VA, has been consistent since at least fiscal year 2017, highlighting a persistent gap in the grant rate between Black and white veterans.

The integration of cultural understanding into PTSD treatment is not a one-size-fits-all process. It requires a willingness to listen to the unique experiences of Black veterans. Their stories reveal the contours of a landscape that is often rugged and inhospitable, yet sometimes unexpectedly supportive. These narratives are not just a litany of challenges; they are also testaments to the strength and adaptability of the human spirit.

Despite the weight of his experiences, Lawson carries a kind of resilience that is bone-deep, born from survival in the face of relentless adversity. “You learn to carry your ghosts and your grief like badges,” he declares, a steely edge of defiance in his voice. “I’ve seen the worst of what this world can do, felt the sting of inequality tear at my soul. But I’m still here.” His hands, though weathered by time, remain steady—a testament to a life of courage both in the jungles of Vietnam and the eastside of Detroit. “I survived over there, and I survive here every day. That’s the truth of being a Black veteran in this country,” Lawson states, his story a powerful testament to an era and its long shadow.

As society seeks to understand and support veterans with PTSD, it’s imperative to consider the distinct experiences of Black veterans. Their journey with PTSD is not just a clinical case study; it reflects broader societal dynamics that shape their everyday lives.

Ultimately, the narrative of Black veterans and PTSD is a mosaic, rich with complexity and deserving of a deeper understanding. It’s a chapter in the broader story of veteran affairs that beckons not for applause, but for a more profound comprehension and genuine engagement.

“You never really get over war,” Lawson confesses, the weight of half a century pressing down on him. But one thing he knows for sure; his sister’s presence is a safe haven, her care a testament to unspoken love and duty. “She’s been my saving grace,” Lawson admits, allowing a rare vulnerability to surface. “I may not know much about therapy, but I know enough to understand that her keeping me company, making sure I eat, making sure I’m alright, that’s her way of fighting this battle with me.”

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