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Black veterans came together at an empowerment conference to make their stories heard

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Groups of Black veterans recently met in Washington, D.C., and these groups have never come together like this before. They're hoping that by joining forces and telling their stories, they can make their voices heard regarding generations of inequality that they faced after serving their country. NPR's Quil Lawrence reports.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Richard Brookshire served as a combat medic in Afghanistan, where he saw a lot. In 2016, when he got out, to the outside world, it appeared like he was all set. He had a job lined up. He'd studied public policy at Columbia University while still in the Army.

RICHARD BROOKSHIRE: I graduated graduate school and I got out the military within a month of each other. And that fall, Trump was elected. And I think for a lot of us in this country, it was a culmination of a lot.

LAWRENCE: Just months later, an avowed white supremacist killed a 66-year-old Black man in New York City with a sword. It turned out the murderer was a fellow Army vet Brookshire had deployed with.

BROOKSHIRE: We were stationed on the same place for basic training. I went to Afghanistan at the same time. I was with the same brigade and then got out at the same time. That sparked, I think, in some respects, a bit of a spiral for me.

LAWRENCE: For Brookshire, that spiral became a full-blown mental health crisis. His career derailed. But as he was working on getting better, he noticed there were lots of other Black vets needing help, and veterans organizations weren't connected.

BROOKSHIRE: I looked on the internet. And when you Google Black vets, nothing much shows up.

LAWRENCE: Brookshire went on to help found the Black Veterans Empowerment Council, the BVEC - 19 Black veterans groups working together. Brookshire was telling his story at their very first meeting in Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BROOKSHIRE: Listen. I'm, like, a working-class kid, grew up with a Haitian mom who's also a vet who's here now. Thanks, mom. Thanks. I love you.

(APPLAUSE)

BROOKSHIRE: Thank you. And I think my story is a powerful one in so far as that, like, I don't wait. I don't ask for permission. I just do, and I let spirit lead it. And I'm hoping that there's a lot of other Black vets that want to stand next to me to do it.

LAWRENCE: Storytelling and honoring the history of Black vets is one part - another is policy. The BVEC is already promoting research done with Yale Law School, which confirms that, statistically, Black vets are more often rejected by the VA or given lower benefits. Veterans getting their benefits is not something Black vets should even have to ask for, says Navy vet Daniele Anderson.

DANIELE ANDERSON: That's what's going to combat the narrative on the other side, if you want to call it that - right? - the narrative that is telling people that this isn't necessary, that we're asking for something that's not owed.

LAWRENCE: The BVEC is pushing legislation to address racial bias in VA benefits now and going back to World War II. In the meantime, the coalition can take direct action.

ELI WILLIAMSON: Veterans become more expensive if they're not using VA programs, right?

LAWRENCE: Eli Williamson runs Leave No Veteran Behind in Chicago.

WILLIAMSON: Now, I'm sorry, guys. I'm an Airborne soldier. So, listen - you're either going to say check, or you gone say something, right? All right. All right.

LAWRENCE: Williamson wants all of these organizations to get an in-house veterans service officer. That's like a professional VA benefits navigator.

WILLIAMSON: The real transformative nature of this project is that if everybody in here is doing their work around veterans and everybody who meets you at your program is utilizing their benefits at 100%, then everybody has less work to do. If we increase the usage of VA benefits by 30- to 50%, we're talking about billions of dollars that flow into the same communities that are disinvested, correct?

LAWRENCE: The communities that these groups live and work in. Eli Williamson says the BVEC will concentrate on those three things - benefits, legislation and history. And as he wraps up, he can't resist a little Army-Marines trash talk.

WILLIAMSON: Being able to talk in threes is good not just for funders but also for Marines because they can't - you know, they can't go past four. What - I can't make a Marine joke? See. Oh, man, look. See; they about to take the mic - womp, womp, womp (ph). Yeah.

LAWRENCE: No one is taking away the microphone. The Black Veterans Empowerment Council has already pushed the administration to fund a VA racial disparity study. Next is a bill in Congress to pay reparations for Black World War II vets who were cheated out of their GI Bill benefits. They're meeting again next month in Chicago. Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.