Lake Effect recently spoke with experts from the VA and the LGBT Resource Center at UW-Milwaukee. They’re among those who are presenting the Zablocki VA Medical Center’s fifth annual mental health summit at UW-Milwaukee on Friday, with a focus on issues faced by LGBTQ+ veterans.
The event’s keynote speaker is Christine Black. Black is an attorney and the Director of Military and Veteran Services at Marywood University in Scranton, Pennsylvania. But before her career in higher education, Black served nine years in the army, which included three deployments.
During her deployments she served as a Unit Armorer, an Operations Non-Commissioned Officer supervisor for an Aviation Task Force and was an Intelligence Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge for an Aviation Task Force. Black also served in the closet for seven and a half years during "don’t ask, don’t tell," or DADT, but came out after its repeal and the subsequent backlash. Black says that the last year of her deployment entirely without DADT "was probably the worst year and I was probably the deepest in the closet."
Today she speaks to many veterans and higher education groups about how to best serve the veteran community, especially those who are LGBTQ and who are at a greater risk of mental health issues. According to Black, LGBTQ veterans are socialized to a certain standard and aloofness even more so than traditional veterans. "It creates this dichotomy in how you see yourself and it's very difficult to reconcile those two labels in your head, and realize how issues from one can impact issues from the other," she adds.
As an officer, Black's responsibilities included being in charge of and supporting other soldiers, which in turn caused her to push her personal struggles and mental health to the side. "It's very much a soldier's mindset," she notes. Black would not allow her personal struggles to take the forefront because she "might be the linchpin and may be the reason someone doesn't get the correct training to bring them home."
Black especially struggled with counseling her soldiers on anything to do with relationships because she felt it was hypocritical of her to do so. She recalls that she could never be completely honest with her squad mates, which impacted unit cohesion, trust, and team dynamics.
"Don't ask, don't tell created this interesting conundrum where the only way you could comply with the rules was to break the rules," says Black. "What a lot of people don't realize is that there was no non-discrimination policy when DADT ended."
The backlash of the policy's repeal caused situations where Black would have to deal with a soldier who had been outed by the command who thought they were helping. People would also make incorrect assumptions about other soldiers, putting them at risk. Black, in fact, went back into the closet due to changing team dynamics as she was assigned to different units.
"My safe space in Nevada was different than my safe space in Maryland, was very, very different than my safe space in Mississippi," she says. "So the safe spaces were there, but you had to know enough to navigate them and you had to take very close note of your command...No matter how close you were to your unit, no matter how good a friend you were to your squadmate, there was always a risk."
Today Black works to bring armed forces services and outside programs together to help create a safe, logical, and accessible path to treatment and aid for all veterans. In her opinion, the armed services cannot create a perfect program on their own and need help from other professionals in partnership with people such as Black herself who understand military culture.
"I'm very much a person who believes that you can only tear the system down from the inside when you understand how everything works and can replicate the services it performs," she says.
Although there has been progress in the military regarding LGBTQ issues, Black is mindful that "it's entirely erasable" legally. She also notes that this generation of service members is the first to serve under the repeal of DADT, but areas such as transgender rights and policies have yet to gain as much ground.
Black's experience working in higher education and speaking at events around the country consistently reminds her of the need to educate both civilians and veterans of the issues LGBTQ service members face and how to properly support them. Through spreading the world and educating others, Black hopes the population as a whole can focus on creating a better network to support all veterans equally.
"Sometimes you have to reach back and pull your squadmates with you, because otherwise they're not going to know that they're missing out on the conversation," she says.