Many can name exactly where they were when President Kennedy was assassinated. I wonder if the same can be said for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose life ended with a bullet on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tenn., on April 4, 1968. I was 17, living in Louisville, Ky., which erupted into violent demonstrations.
Fifty years later, King’s message is more relevant and necessary than ever. Despite the progress over the last five decades that has brought us many firsts by African-Americans — including one by me: I became the first African-American surgeon general of the U.S. Navy in 2007 — we have largely ignored the advance of racism across our land, even toward veterans. Our nation has a shameful history of its treatment of African-Americans returning from war; many survived combat and military service to this great land only to be humiliated and often killed upon their return. Activist Medgar Evers, for example, survived the Battle of Normandy, but died in 1963 in a civil rights battle, killed by a Klansman; he was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.
In an Equal Justice Initiative report released in 2016, director Bryan Stevenson wrote:
“No one was more at risk of experiencing violence and targeted racial terror than African-American veterans who had proven their valor and courage as soldiers during the Civil War, World War I and World War II. Because of their military service, African-American veterans were seen as a particular threat to Jim Crow and racial subordination. Thousands of African-American veterans were accosted, assaulted, attacked, threatened, abused or lynched following military service.”
African-American veterans who wore the cloth of the nation often lost their lives after returning home by those they risked their lives to protect.
Before dismissing such killings as part of history, understand and know that the murder of African-American military veterans continues. Most recently, a federal jury awarded $10 million to the family of an Oklahoma Army veteran who died in a Tulsa jail with a broken neck after he was tortured for 51 hours, begging for water and help. This Army veteran who served overseas was arrested in a hotel while having a mental breakdown after his wife left him, clearly suffering from an urgent mental health condition that should have warranted a trip to the closest emergency department instead of a jail.
At the VA Maryland Health Care System, ask any group of veterans and they will tell you that duty, honor and selfless service mean more to them than ethnic background and racial makeup. They are trained to rely on each other for their very lives. In military culture, no one is left behind.
Veterans are a unique population. They have endured death, disability and moral injury — traumas of indescribable pain and horror — so that we all can enjoy our lives of opportunity, freedom and the pursuit of happiness as described in our Constitution. So it is especially hurtful to endure and survive the rigors of military service only to return home and be treated like second class citizens unworthy of even the most basic rights. A veteran suffering any kind of urgent medical condition deserves empathy, compassion and treatment, and not a fatal 51-hour ordeal in a jail cell without food or water.
Now, as we celebrate the man who lived and worked tirelessly to achieve a dream in which all of us are judged by the content of our character and not the color of our skin, we find ourselves at a crossroads where we as a nation can choose to rise above the pettiness of the status quo and the destructiveness of racial hatred and animosity and recognize the humanity of each other.
As King so eloquently said, “There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, not politic, nor popular, but he must take it because his conscience tells him it is right.”
Dr. Adam M. Robinson Jr. is director of the VA Maryland Health Care System. He served as the 36th surgeon general of the United States Navy, overseeing both the U.S. navy and Marine Corps health care systems. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org