Ten years ago last Wednesday, U.S. troops crossed the Kuwaiti border and began the most controversial chapter in American history since the Vietnam War. The Iraq War was a bumpy ride, replete with half-truths and lies about Saddam Hussein's arsenal of weapons of mass destruction; revelations of torture, prisoner mistreatment and random acts of unprovoked violence; and heart-wrenching stories of American soldiers in the prime of their lives being snuffed out for a war that a majority of Americans now say was a mistake.
While no U.S. combat troops have been in Iraq since 2011, the legacy of our presence there promises to be felt for years, if not decades. Sectarian violence unleashed by the toppling of Saddam Hussein and the years of U.S. occupation that followed continues to wreak havoc on the country. In September, following the sentencing of Iraq's Sunni vice president, nearly 100 people, most of the them Shiites, were killed in at least ten cities across the nation in the worst day of violence since the withdrawal of U.S. troops. That record was nearly broken last week, on the eve of the anniversary of the invasion, when more than 60 people were killed in wave of bombings across Baghdad.
By most measures, Iraq is in worse shape politically and structurally than the day we marched into Baghdad. But the implications of the conflict there extend far beyond the scarred terrain and divided cities of Iraq. They are felt every day, right here at home, by the hundreds of thousands of veterans who served in the war and now face higher rates of joblessness, mental illness, homelessness and suicide.
Together with the invasion of Afghanistan two years earlier, Operation Iraqi Freedom was the first prolonged modern U.S. conflict prosecuted by an all-volunteer force; and working and middle-class communities took the brunt of the impact. Nearly 4,500 Americans died in the war, and another 30,000 were wounded. Up until the very last casualty, people of color paid an especially high price.
On November 14, 2011, just weeks before the troop pullout, Army Specialist David Hickman became the last official U.S. casualty of the war when his convoy rolled over an improvised explosive device and he bled to death. Hickman, an African-American soldier from North Carolina, was just 23 when he died.
As journalist Cord Jefferson pointed out in commentary published shortly after U.S. troops began leaving Iraq: “People of all colors died unnecessarily in Iraq, but Hickman’s death is a reminder of the high costs African-Americans pay in war.”
According to an analysis by the U.S. Army – the service branch with the highest proportion of Black enlistees – the number of African-American soldiers has declined since the 1980s, when nearly a quarter were Black. But African Americans continue to serve in disproportionately high numbers. In 2009, 18 percent of the total Army population was Black, and African Americans comprised 21 percent of active-duty enlisted soldiers, the Army reported.
“Because many Blacks don’t have traditional advancement opportunities – good schools, family college funds, etc. – it makes sense that so many would turn to the military for a leg up,” Jefferson observed. “It’s a choice, but it’s a choice fraught with lots of racist historical baggage.”
In Iraq, Blacks made up an average of 15 percent of combat troops in-country at any given time, and in the earliest weeks of the conflict accounted for a startlingly high percentage of casualties. However, due largely to their concentration in non-combat positions of the military, by the end of the war African Americans accounted for just 9 percent of fatalities – which is actually lower than other ethnicities.
There is anecdotal evidence, however, that African-American soldiers were purposely targeted because of their race. A Sunni insurgent interviewed in Baghdad in 2004 by Guardian reporter Jason Burke echoed the ethnocentrism that permeates much of the Middle East when he admitted: “To have Negroes occupying us is a particular humiliation. Sometimes we aborted a mission because there were no Negroes [to target].”
The war in Iraq had a well-documented negative effect on overall Black enlistment in the armed services, but the opposite was true for Latinos. In 2001, Latinos comprised 9.5 percent of the armed forces, but by the end of the Iraq War that total had risen to 12 percent. Like their counterparts in the African-American community, many Latinos joined up to take advantage of opportunities for education and employment; but recruiters had access to another, even more enticing carrot designed to encourage Latino enlistment.
In July 2002, President Bush signed an executive order that established a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who fight for the U.S. Specifically, the order provided for the “expedited naturalization for aliens and noncitizen nationals serving in an active-duty status in the Armed Forces of the United States during the period of the war against terrorists of global reach.”
“Recruiters trying to fill slots have historically pressed vulnerable people into service, but for some people, it's the only way they are ever going to get citizenship,” said Dan Kesselbrenner, director of the National Immigration Project, in a 2007 interview.
According to the Houston Chronicle, by 2006 more than 25,000 immigrants had become citizens under the program, some of them posthumously after being killed in action. Studies show that Latinos are more likely to be in combat roles than technical occupations such as electronics and communications, which may explain why they were more 21 percent more likely than any other race to die on the battlefield in Iraq, according to an analysis by the University of Pennsylvania.
America breathed a collective sigh of relief when the last U.S. troops pulled out of Iraq at the end of 2011, but things hardly improved for minority soldiers, sailors and Marines when they returned from active duty. Research shows that minority soldiers not only experience higher rates of PSTD, but are less likely to receive treatment for it, as well as for other health conditions.
A 2007 internal review of racial and ethnic disparities in the VA health care system found treatment disparities across all clinical arenas. Since veterans of all races and ethnicities receive the same benefits, these disparities persisted despite the absence of significant economic burdens.
Among the findings, the study found that non-white and white veterans differ in their degree of familiarity with and knowledge about medical interventions, and that minority veterans tend to be less trustful and more skeptical about the benefits of medical interventions.
“In some cases, VA Medical Centers that disproportionately serve minority veterans have fewer available services or deliver lower quality care overall than VAMCs serving predominantly white veterans,” the report found.
One result of the disparity in care is that minority veterans are significantly more likely to wind up homeless. According to the National Association of Homeless Veterans, approximately 40 percent of homeless veterans are African American or Latino, despite only accounting for 10.4 percent and 3.4 percent of the U.S. veteran population, respectively.
Some studies place that figure even higher. As of 2012, the U.S. Veterans Administration identified 62,619 homeless vets, nearly half of whom are Black or Latino. Another 140,000 veterans – many of them ethnic minorities – are incarcerated in state and federal prisons. And nearly a third of those who aren't locked up or on the streets are unemployed.
In 2009 the Obama administration established the National Center on Homelessness Among Veterans with the lofty goal of eliminating homelessness among vets by 2015. The effort is being coordinated with researchers at three universities, including the University of Pennsylvania, and includes community outreach and education designed to reach vulnerable populations and help them navigate the complex web of available services.
In fiscal 2013, the VA has earmarked $1.4 billion to specialized homeless programs and $4.4 billion to health care for Veterans who are homeless, according to the agency.