Queer Black army veteran who served in Afghanistan describes what it taught him about racism and homophobia in America

Richard Brookshire, documentary filmmaker, founder of the Black Veterans Project and former US army combat medic

A queer Black man has described what his experience serving in the US army taught him about racism and homophobia in America.

Richard Brookshire, a former army sergeant and combat medic, is now a documentary filmmaker and a founder of the Black Veterans Project.

In a piece for the New York Times, Brookshire said he began basic training for the army in 2009, and describes his army career as a “sacrifice I had to make in order to get an education”.

He said he thought he would be able to remain in the US and continue his education, but was sent to Germany and then Afghanistan.

Brookshire wrote: “Not only was I closeted because the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy was still in effect, but I was one of just a few Black people in my platoon of 40 soldiers.

“I think my company of a couple of hundred had maybe 10 black soldiers — most of the others were Midwestern white guys.”

Another gay soldier ‘was beaten with a bat in the shower.’

While in the US army, he said he witnessed both “microagressions” and full-blown “racism and homophobia”.

“A gay soldier had been discovered in the unit before I got there,” he wrote. “And he was beaten with a bat in the shower.

“And there was the lieutenant colonel who erupted when he saw the Reverend Dr Martin Luther King Jr on TV, telling me to turn it off, because ‘I don’t want to see that troublemaker’.”

He added: “There was a deep fascination with Nazism that was so pervasive in the unit I served in, deep fascination with Hitler and with the swastika.

“There were young men who were reading Mein Kampf. I was 23. I didn’t necessarily have the kind of awareness I do now about where that kind of indoctrination can lead people.”

Brookshire said he eventually became “numb” to it, but that it began to “chip away at [his] sense of self”.

After eight years in the army, he finally returned home and “had a chance to breathe and think of all that had happened”. This, he said, led to depression and a suicide attempt.

It made me recognise that I wasn’t fabricating the racism I bore witness to while I was in the army.

In 2016, he got involved with the Black Lives Matter movement and met “mostly young Black queer people who were doing a lot of work with families who were victims of police violence”.

One day, he heard a story of a Black man who was stabbed with a sword by a white nationalist, and realised that he and the killer had served in the same brigade. He said: “It made me recognise that I wasn’t fabricating the racism I bore witness to while I was in the army.”

Now a filmmaker, he is aiming to “capture the stories” of the protests against police brutality in New York. He attended a peaceful protest on Manhattan bridge, but when one protester threw a water bottle, they were stormed by the police.

NYPD in riot gear blocking protesters from entering the Manhattan Bridge. (Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty)

He wrote: “I could see in the faces of officers — especially in the faces of the Black officers — the internal conflict. I recognised that from Afghanistan.

“The tension they were navigating themselves: having to look other Black people in the eye and let them know that they couldn’t cross the bridge, that they couldn’t scream, that they couldn’t express the deep trauma of the fact that we’ve been living through this kind of racial terrorism for the better part of 400 years.

“But here they were with their pay checks, with their stability and their ability to feed their family and their kids. They’re making that same kind of compromise I did when I was carrying a rifle in Afghanistan.”

Brookshire said there is an “awakening that white America needs to contend with”, that “violence and poverty are an ever-present reality for Black America, and some believe they’ll never have access to the American dream”.

He added: “When people talk about looting and property damage, it’s a distraction from the real issues. People who choose to turn a blind eye to the grievances propelling the protests are part of the problem.

“Because they don’t recognise the way human beings, and Black people specifically, who were once considered property, are in many ways still denied full access to their humanity in America.”