Highlighting the diversity of US veterans

Honoring U.S. veterans of underrepresented communities is not a matter of political correctness, but a necessity of historical accuracy.

Representing historically underrepresented identities within the U.S. veteran community is a necessity that not only broadens the depth and breadth of U.S. history narratives, but brings benefit to all communities by recording history as it accurately occurred. With 14.1% of U.S. undergraduate students identifying as veterans, and UWT being home to 16% military-connected students, it is more important than ever to represent veterans in an accurate and authentic way.

According to the Council on Foreign Relations, “the racial and ethnic diversity of enlisted recruits varies considerably across the services and between genders.” The office of the Undersecretary of Defense reports female-identified enlistment has steadily increased in all branches of the U.S. military since 1970. However, there are still widespread disparities in the public recognition of veterans’ identities, particularly of historically underrepresented communities. 

“I really want my sisters in arms to claim their place in history,” said Lisa Narciso, Washington  State Women Veterans Coordinator and previous President & Senior Advisor for the National Association of State Women Veterans Coordinators. 

A veteran herself, Narciso shares her insights about women veterans in the US.

In a conversation about being a U.S. veteran, Narciso describes her experience as one that often comes with her veteran identity being challenged, questioned, or in some cases, even denied.  She attributes this to many identifiers, some of which include her being a woman, being born and raised in the Philippines and her self-identifying as having an accent. 

“A lot of individuals in our community, and in the (Department of Veterans Affairs) itself, doesn’t give [veterans who are women] the benefit of the doubt,” Narciso said.

Narciso shared examples of the responses she has received from the public when disclosing that she is a veteran. From restaurant employees to Veteran Affairs medical staff, to her trying to obtain a fishing license, the common sentiment she hears is “you cannot use your husband’s veteran benefits.” Narciso said “it’s so ironic that joining the Army, we have to fight to be equal with our men counterparts.” 

She explains this is a dynamic even her husband, who is also a veteran, did not understand until he began having to regularly justify her veteran status at various businesses and service providers.

But women are just one demographic of underrepresented veterans in the U.S.

Antonio Solorio, Treasurer of the UWT Student Veteran Organization, VIBE website coordinator and a veteran himself, said “as far as underrepresented communities, definitely the LGBTQ community is one that’s underrepresented.”

The Washington Department of Veterans Affairs reports there are an estimated 30,626 LGBTQ+ Veterans in Wash. state. In 2021, Washington State implemented a LGBTQ+ Veterans outreach program through the Washington Department of Veterans Affairs.

Yet, the Council on Foreign Relations reports, “The military has also opened its ranks to openly gay individuals, but it has maintained broad prohibitions on those who are transgender.” Prohibitions specifically meaning policies that have historically banned LGBTQIA+ individuals from enlisting and/or serving openly in the military.

However, an executive order from the White House, dated January 25, 2021, declared “…it shall be the policy of the United States to ensure that all transgender individuals who wish to serve in the United States military and can meet the appropriate standards shall be able to do so openly and free from discrimination.”

Narciso and Solorio say the faces of the U.S. veteran community, in its entirety, are much more diverse than the typically presented stereotypes. Though those stereotypical identities certainly exist, the veterans assert that the predominantly represented examples of who a veteran is leaves out a vast array of actual veteran identities.

 “Most people assume that veterans are conservative, gun-loving white guys with a beard… there is that guy, but that’s not most of us,” says Solorio. 

Gesturing to the room, he said, “that’s not one person that is in here right now.” 

Michael Maratas, UWT Military-Connected Career Development Specialist and U.S. veteran, adds “Two truths can exist at the same time. I myself participated in many anti-Iraq war demonstrations, and yet I still served… I even told people ‘look I don’t agree with this, but I’m here.”

In speaking about veteran stereotypes, Maratas said “there’s no monopoly on what it means to be a vet, or look like a vet. It could be anyone.” 

He explains being a veteran is not siloed to just those who served in combat, broadening the definition to any individual who has served in the armed forces as being a veteran. A definition that both Narciso and Solorio also expressed as true.

“There are pro-peace vets, middle of the road vets, and patriot vets,” Maratas said.

Maratas described his desire to have a more positive or inclusive portrayal of veterans.  

“Not this ball cap wearing veteran in class that’s angry all the time. We’re just like you, same ages or older, wanting to get a good education, participate in school and move forward,” Maratas said. 

According to Student Veterans of America, 3-4% of college students in the U.S. are veterans.  Here at UW Tacoma, school reports show there were approximately 633 military affiliated students enrolled at UWT in Autumn quarter of 2021. 

Though differences exist in opinions of the military, most individuals can relate to the intrinsic value of building stronger communities. Solorio, Maratas and Narciso all shared sentiments of valuing the importance of people, and reaching across figurative lines to build stronger communities together. 

Social justice is intersectional, encompassing all identities and narratives. Pursuing justice for all communities requires accurate representation of and within those communities, including U.S. veterans.

With the historical inaccuracies currently represented in much of U.S. recorded history, honoring veteran communities as they authentically are, sets the historical narrative on facts, rather than propaganda.

Speaking to the legacy that a full and accurate representation of veterans provides, Narciso expressed “I really appreciate the women veterans that came through for me. They paved the way, and we’re doing the same thing.”

Photo by Refuel Agency | An American flag resting in a pair of military grade boots with dog tags hanging out.