Wearing the title of Veteran in America is one that comes with honor and pride. Less than one percent of the population takes on the sacrifice to join the armed forces. And regardless of your background, it is a lifelong fraternity that separates one from the masses.
I served five years in the United States Navy. During my time, I learned many valuable lessons, honed a skillset that still serves me to this day and faced real racism for the first time in my life.
I don't have a patriotic story of why I joined. I don't come from a background of veterans with the desire to carry on a lineage. No. My reasoning to jump out the window and serve was simple — it got me out of my hood.
I was on the terribly common path many young black inner city men, such as myself, take: to the penitentiary or an early grave. I was a full-fledged gang member by the age of 15 and lived within the circumstances that comes along with street life. I didn't sell drugs and rob people because it was cool. On the contrary, I did it for the old school reasons of surviving the day to day. If there was a choice between me going hungry and someone else losing something they could get back, I chose me every time. I was a Section 8 baby born in the crack era, and my single mother made just enough money to be broke again after paying the bills. After my many years of doing wrong while living in her house, she was fed up and put me out into the wild I was desperately chasing. So, I did what I had to do.
Years later, one conversation would lead me to the decision to join the military. My first cousin and I lived together at the time. Him — one felony in and five years probation, a brand new baby daughter and no marketable skills. Me — no felonies, but a struggling weed/crack business, and an alcohol and anger problem. One day, we decided to drive around and smoke. During our high talk, we spoke of our direction in life and what we were going to do with it. Out the corner of my eye, I saw a recruiting office and I told him to pull over. I had thought about the military before, but our talk reinforced the desperation we equally faced. We finished our blunt and walked inside. High as hell and yearning for a change, we signed up that day.
To not incriminate our recruiter, who is still currently serving, I will skip the steps of joining while high, and my cousin joining with a previous felony and a new charge pending.
During bootcamp I learned that I would have to be extremely good at my job to overcompensate for my attitude, which sucked and was unchanging. I did that, but with the way I carried myself, it was evident to my superiors that I had played in the underworld. One of my instructors once asked me in a classroom full of other new, mostly white, sailors if I was on a jail to military type of program. This was a Black lady, married to a white man.
Growing up, my neighborhood was predominantly Black and Hispanic and this was my first time being around white people other than cops and teachers. I saw how white people would sit amongst themselves and tell Black jokes. A few times I had to be restrained when in earshot of these conversations. The military may show commercials of diversity to meet its quota, but it's very much segregated. Whites hang with whites. Blacks with Blacks. And the lines are pretty much drawn in the sand. You have your ladder climbing, shucking and jiving, Uncle Tom types, but if you are unapologetically Black in the military, you are under a microscope and the unfair weight of your skin plays a role in your treatment.
You figure, a lot of the military is country white boys who's only exposure to Blacks is TV. The ignorance is astounding and bold. I've been questioned if I knew my father and why do Black people act like this or that, etc., and my answers and actions were always defiant. I was gonna show them the n****r they were seeking. If nothing else, it hardened my pro-Blackness, as I literally felt like an enemy behind the lines.
All in all, I used the military for what it was worth. I earned a high paying career, gained unparalleled benefits, learned to channel my aggression, learned to curse people out politely and gained lifelong friends. I have no regrets about serving in the military, but this is America and if you are going to serve while Black, serve yourself first and keep your head on a swivel.