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OPINION

Black military families’ sense of belonging

By KATHY ROTH-DOUQUET | Special to Stars and Stripes | Published: July 24, 2020

Kudos to Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who this month effectively banned display of the Confederate battle flag on U.S. military installations, saying the “flags we fly must accord with the military imperatives of good order and discipline, treating all our people with dignity and respect, and rejecting divisive symbols.” Ooh Rah! At Blue Star Families, we think this a great step toward improving military families’ sense of belonging.

The next step: rename the 10 Army bases named after Confederate generals (Fort Bragg, Fort Benning, Fort Lee, etc.). I love the Army, but one can’t help noticing that none of the other services have installations named after individuals who violated their oath to “support and defend the U.S. Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” This is a problem the Army can solve.

The mission of my organization, Blue Star Families, is to support military families in ways that strengthen communities. We care deeply about having a strong military. When my colleagues and I started this work in 2009, we conducted surveys identifying challenges faced by modern military families. Our findings showed higher rates of depression, anxiety and other adverse outcomes in service members and spouses.

I found myself wondering, “Why?” After all, military families have many advantages: education, support systems, and programs (including subsidized housing, universal healthcare, etc.), as well as at least one steady source of income. With so many needs met, why were they experiencing such distress? The military mission, while challenging, also gives many people a strong sense of purpose and positive morale.

The answer, I learned, has to do in part with the importance of social bonds, a network of connections, and a defining element of the military lifestyle — repeated PCS moves that break those bonds.

Blue Star Families works to build community for our military families through social programming and advocacy. Our research, and the research of others, has shown that in order to thrive, people need to feel a sense of belonging. Improving military families’ sense of belonging not only benefits the individuals involved, but also the military writ large — by improving mission readiness.

Recently, we polled military families on their reaction to protests against racial injustice. We received nearly 1,500 responses. Our findings revealed many Black military families feel vulnerable within the communities in which they live. As one military spouse told us: “I work full time. I am a Black mother of two Black boys, and my husband is an active duty officer. We will move again in less than a month to a new neighborhood, and I am more fearful now than ever about whether the neighborhood will accept my boys and my family.”

The spouse’s fear is understandable. African American Blue Star Family members have shared that they feel a diminished sense of belonging to installation communities named after Confederate generals who fought to preserve their enslavement and oppression.

As a Jewish mother and military spouse, I would feel anxious about relocating to an installation named “Fort Himmler” — after someone who fought for the enslavement and extermination of families like mine. I would feel frightened, misunderstood and disrespected.

We, as a military community, cannot build belonging if Black military families don’t feel seen, heard or respected.

Ultimately, the diminished sense of belonging of our Black military families has dire implications for mission readiness. In our surveys, limited belonging to one’s local community is associated with greater stress and mental health diagnoses in military and veteran spouses. African Americans make up 16% of the active-duty military. If nearly a fifth of the active-duty force feels a lack of belonging, the ADF’s readiness is being actively harmed.

I understand some individuals feel renaming installations is an attempt to “erase history.” History should be taught — and we should differentiate between marking history and misplacing honor. I get that many military families have positive associations with the names of installations on which they’ve served — associations with missions and units for which they have justifiable pride. I’m confident we can hold on to the pride of the 82nd Airborne even while Fort Bragg takes a new name. Even more important than familiarity for the health of the force is the effect that these names have on Black military families’ sense of belonging.

To cultivate minority military families’ sense of belonging and safety in their communities — and thereby support mission readiness — the military will eventually need to go beyond symbolic changes. For now, the least we can do as a military community is to continue to affirm that African American military families belong, and rename installations in favor of generals who upheld their oath to support and defend the U.S. Constitution. In the end, this move will make our country stronger by making our military stronger.

Kathy Roth-Douquet is CEO and co-founder of Blue Star Families.