As Veterans Build an Online Community, Divisions are Laid Bare

Posted in 2021 The Gnovis Blog

By Ted Harrison

During the recent protests against police brutality and systemic racism here in Washington, D.C., a majority of the war memorials were spared from being vandalized.  One exception, however, was a simple question spray-painted on the World War II Memorial asking: “Do Black Vets Count?”  As a veteran, I feel the obvious answer is “of course they do,” but the treatment of black WWII veterans – most of whom were denied life-changing benefits like the GI Bill – shows that, at least to the government, they did not.

Note: Many Georgetown University military-connected students use VA education benefits, also known at the GI Bill®. To use VA education benefits at Georgetown University, please refer to the school* that corresponds to your academic program for details pertaining to more information about the certification process.

This event, among many others, is changing the larger conversations taking place in the veteran community. In simpler times, most veteran engagements looked like what Veteran cartoonist Maximilian Uriarte called “The Angry Facebook Veteran” which he parodies in his popular Terminal Lance webcomic [NSFW].  A small, vocal minority of veterans, in other words, too busy screaming into the internet void about celebrities “dishonoring” things or taking the limelight from veteran’s issues while most other veterans generally made an effort to not talk about their service and do more productive things with their time.  Uriarte uses his platform to riff on the smaller indecencies and mundane pleasures of military life – like the line at the on-base barbershop on Sunday, the beauty of watching one the new guy in the unit “go internal” for the first time, or the innate ability for infantrymen to fall asleep anywhere.  

All of these mundane pieces of military life contribute to making veterans in the United States a strange demographic.  There has always been a “civil-military divide” in America and most veterans tend to view themselves as “apolitical” – though realistically this divide means that veterans often struggle with reintegration into civilian society, and civilians often do not understand the depth, cost, or effect of military service outside of pop-culture stereotypes.  In popular media, for example, veterans are often depicted as one-sided heroes, charity cases, or victims of trauma or abuse.

Social Media: 

This feeling of marginalization led veterans, like many other communities, to quickly adapt social media as a platform for a usually insular community to come together and express itself through memes, Facebook groups and Instagram pages.  

In the age of social media veterans are able to connect with others across the country through shared personal stories and experiences.  

As a relatively new veteran, I typically use these pages to stay informed on issues in the veteran and active duty community, such as the recent controversies related to murders and disappearances of soldiers, like PFC Vanessa Guillen, from Fort Hood, Texas.  

These social media pages are an important resource for spreading mental health awareness. They actively strive to combat the grossly disproportionate rate of veteran suicide compared to the civilian population. They also serve as a platform for stories of service and personal sacrifice  – such as the growing call to posthumously upgrade SFC Alwyn Cashe’s Silver Star to the Medal of Honor (a movement which has stalled again in Congress due to the battle over the Supreme Court confirmation hearings).  

E Commerce 

Along with this growth of connection in the community, many grassroots, veteran-owned, and veteran-centered companies began to cater to veterans with products ranging from T-shirts to coffee.

And this is where the tension begins.

It shouldn’t be surprising that most veteran-centered companies establish a pro-military image.  This aesthetic also tends to attract customers who are conservative, pro-gun, and/or pro-law enforcement, and these companies tend to cater to these tastes as well.

Take, for example, Black Rifle Coffee Company (BRCC): founded by former Green Beret Evan Hafer, this company is well known for its pro-gun and pro-law enforcement image.  They currently sell a “Thin Blue Line Coffee Roast,” and a majority of the apparel they sell includes images of rifles or other weaponry.  

Another company, Nineline Apparel, sells T-shirts with statements like “I stand for the national anthem” and a line of shirts dedicated to the 2nd Amendment.

Personally, I find these companies to be a symptom of the late 2000s/early 2010s stereotype of the “Bro-Vets” or “Disgruntled Veteran.”  For me, these veterans are the type who begin every sentence with “As a veteran…” or somehow relate even the most mundane things back to their time in the military.  As a new student at Georgetown, this was something I strived to avoid.  Without much other recent experiences to speak about, however, I sometimes found myself trying to say things like “in my old job…” or any statement that would be as far from “As a veteran…” as possible.  Still, it’s hard not to bring it up, and even when I try to obscure it there is still a part of me that cringes when I mention my military service or my experiences as a veteran.

That’s because, in spite of the aggressively masculine coffee companies, star-spangled t-shirts, and the $200 5.11 tactical pants, most veterans just want to integrate back into society, ride the GI Bill, and be left alone.  Veterans are often in the limelight only as a political tool to attack or support a political candidate.  In the current presidential race, for example, both candidates have been criticized for statements about veterans:  first, the President’s alleged statements reported by The Atlantic, and then Joe Biden’s “verbal missteps” and use of the “damaged veteran trope” in campaigning. 

When I saw the question “Do Black Vets Count?” spray painted on the WWII memorial though, I knew that this stance was changing.

Most of these companies, like BRCC and Nineline, have strayed away from addressing the BLM protests.  This makes sense as most of their stakeholders and customers are law enforcement, military, or generally conservative supporters.  Even the more respected and established Veteran Services Organizations – like the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars – have hesitated in fully addressing the issues of race and have tended to focus more on the vandalized memorials.

BLM + Veterans Online

Other companies that gain most of their business from Instagram, however, have begun to address the issues of racism and the lack of diverse representation in the military. The veteran-owned blog OAF Nation, for example, acts as an online space where (among others) a new generation of veteran authors like David Rose, Leo Jenkins, and Aaron Kirk share their insights.  The site, of course, also sells t-shirts, but it also sells face masks and quarantine gear.   

In an article for OAF, Aaron Kirk writes about the death of the “Veteran Monoculture” and mourns the fact that “we forgot that some of us were Black and some of us were scared and some of us saved lives on the job and some of us had experienced things that others hadn’t experienced, and we forgot that at one point the war had united all of us.” 

The OAF Instagram page included posts memorializing Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a clip from Dave Chappelle’s special “8:46” about the murder of George Floyd, and a condemnation of the shooting of Rayshard Brooks by the Atlanta PD.  Veterans and the military are not known for their adherence to political correctness, so it’s not surprising that the comment sections on these specific posts typically turn into a typical toxic wasteland. 

The military has not always been so skewed toward political correctness and was once an area of social experimentation:  In 1948, for example, President Truman desegregated the United States military with Executive Order 9981.  But, the military has struggled to keep up with changing social norms:  for example, the controversial “Don’t Ask; Don’t Tell” policy – which allowed gay and lesbian service members to serve as long as they remained “in the closet” – was only repealed in 2010, 9 years after the outbreak of the War in Afghanistan, 7 years after the Invasion of Iraq, and after unknown numbers of LGBTQ+ servicemembers had fought, been wounded or killed in action.  The military has also struggled to integrate along gender lines with positions in Combat Arms.  These occupational specialties were open only to men until late 2015 when Defense Secretary Ash Carter opened those jobs to women.  With these cultural changes, veterans leaving the military will begin to reflect more and more diverse populations – like Tulsi Gabbard, who became the first female combat veteran to run for President when she competed in this last Democratic primary. 

As the “Global War on Terror” appears to be ending there will need to be a reckoning of the trauma wrought over two generations worth of soldiers – many of whom were too young or not yet born to remember the 9/11 attacks.  There have also been failures of multiple administrations in ensuring that proper and expedient care to those affected by policy decisions. With this year’s Veteran’s Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery being conducted with a silent and deflated President Trump while the nation grows increasingly exhausted by an unending pandemic and contentious election season, there are still conversations to be had among veterans about what the last four years have all been about and how they should continue to use social media as a platform. 

*GI Bill® is a registered trademark of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). More information about education benefits offered by VA is available at the official U.S. government Web site at .