Racism, PTSD and righteous rage

The following is based on a speech given at a disabled rights meeting in Boston on July 26. Imperato, a Vietnam veteran transgender activist, is a member of Paralyzed Veterans of America and the Harlem-based Veteran Quality of Life Action Network. A former Service Officer for Disabled American Veterans, Imperato is a consultant on disabled access for music festivals in New York state.

The banner over the podium reads “Support Disabled Liberation!” The word “disabled” has been used since 1981. Thirty-three years later, what is written in parking lots? In bathrooms? The word “handicapped.”  But try to find a disabled organization called “handicapped” in the phone book. There isn’t one.

Where does the word “handicapped” come from? During the Great Depression, layoffs didn’t trickle down to everyone until 1932. The first people to lose their jobs were people with disabilities. Many, if not most, were forced to stand on street corners begging for money, with a cap in their hands — so “handicapped.” That is the origin of the word and why “handicapped” is a derogatory term. It is amazing that now three eight decades later the word is used. It is on new signs, even in hospitals: “handicapped.”

‘Rambo Syndrome’ never happened

One of the most damaging aspects of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for the Vietnam veteran is the Rambo Syndrome. The Rambo movie propagates the myth that returning GIs were spit on and pissed on.

I have heard Vietnam vets say, “When I came back, I was spit on, I was pissed on.”  Whenever I asked them, no one could ever say when or where that happened.  The response was, “I didn’t really mean that. It’s not what really happened.” They were conditioned by this film to say that.

In the Veterans Administration’s 1986 survey on treatment of Vietnam veterans, 77 percent of those asked said they were treated with respect by “all strata of society.”  Another 15 percent said they were “somewhat” treated respectfully. That totals 92 percent.

The myth of veterans being disrespected is one of the biggest fallacies; yet it is repeated constantly.  It is damaging to soldiers when they keep hearing it.

The memorials held on Veterans Day, Memorial Day and other times are not meant to honor veterans, but to justify and praise the wars.  Some anti-war Vietnam vets have worn jackets with a logo reading “Honor the veteran, not the war!” to show they differed with pro-war sentiment.

The ruling class doesn’t care about GIs. They want to take away our benefits.  What will they replace them with?  A nice wreath for the 6 p.m. news that cost $32. No thanks.

Racism in the U.S. — a cause of PTSD

Public figures about PTSD are usually far too low.  The PTSD unit in the Manhattan VA says that 80 percent to 85 percent of those who were in any combat zone in Vietnam or any other war suffer from some form of PTSD.

PTSD has to do with racism and national oppression for many Vietnam vets, not with fighting a North Vietnamese Army soldier or seeing your buddy get killed.

The Vietnamese were aware of racism in U.S. society. They put up signs in English off the perimeter, outside the outer wire that said, “African-American soldiers, the sons and daughters of slaves, why is it in your interest to fight us?”  Some signs said, “Listen to Mohammad Ali!” The heavyweight champion fighter is a hero for refusing to be inducted into the U.S. military and to fight in Vietnam.  Many soldiers gave their weapons to the Vietnamese.

Death threat by racist soldiers

In Vietnam, a group of white GIs, including me, hung out with African-American and Latino and Latina GIs because we could relate to them and they could relate to us. It wasn’t a conscious or political decision. Because of this, I and the others became the victims of a murder plot by racist white GIs, who considered us “traitors.” I’ve had  PTSD ever since then.

The African-American soldiers got wind of the threats against us.  While we slept, they kept watch over us and told these racists, “You touch Imperato, you touch Richardson, you touch Bloomfield, two of you will get it in return.”

There are two different ways of saving someone’s life. There is helping a person when they can’t help themselves, like treating a bullet wound. And then there’s risking one’s own life to save someone else’s.  Guys like T. Jones, J.T. Campbell, J.J. Felton from Chicago and Howard E. Howard from Gary, Ind., saved my life by risking theirs. Imagine loyalty like that?  How could anyone ever betray anyone who did that?

The media don’t talk about how many veterans of color were murdered in Vietnam by racists in the military. So many veterans, like those in my PTSD group, are being treated because of the racism they suffered in the military in Vietnam and when they returned home.  They are being treated for the PTSD they suffer every time they hear about the so-called “disrespect of vets,” which is perpetrated on the TV, radio and movie propaganda machine.

Racism, rage and PTSD

I have been in the PTSD program in the Manhattan VA  for 17 years. Most veterans in the program are people of color. They were furious about the killing of unarmed African-American youth, Trayvon Martin, in Florida by racist vigilante George Zimmerman and then his acquittal in July 2013. This sparked major demonstrations around the country.

I heard at the VA, “George Zimmerman is a cold-blooded murderer. The jury didn’t issue a not-guilty verdict. They issued a license to kill children of color.”

My children look like Trayvon Martin. How does PTSD affect me after his murder and the acquittal of his killer?  We call it “the rage.” It’s not about me as an individual. It’s about us.

‘Best medicine is the struggle’

We take so many medications for PTSD, but what is the best medication?  The best therapy?  Joining the struggle.  The banner “‘Support Disabled Liberation!”’ says it.  After returning from Vietnam, I joined the American Servicemen’s Union — an anti-war organization of active-duty GIs within the military — and Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

We must break the mold to break this society’s pro-war conditioning. The ruling class divides and conquers us.  Let us get together so we can relegate this disgusting, racist, misogynist, homophobic, gender-phobic capitalist system into the trash bin of history where it belongs.

Suggested reading

Imperato recommends these books: “Veterans and Agent Orange:  Health Effects of Herbicides Used in Vietnam,” a compilation by the Institute of Medicine for the National Academy of Sciences (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1994).  “From Hanoi to Hollywood: The Vietnam War in American Film,” edited by Linda Dittmar and Gene Michaud,” exposes Hollywood’s propaganda about Vietnam; one chapter is entitled “Never Having to Say You’re Sorry: Rambo’s Rewriting of the Vietnam War” (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1990). “Shook over Hell:  Post-Traumatic Stress, Vietnam and the Civil War” by Eric T. Dean (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997).