U.S. troops battling racism report high barriers to justice - A REUTERS SPECIAL REPORT
In the U.S. military, troops outnumber civilian employees 2 to 1. But civilians file far more discrimination complaints. Service members say there’s a reason: The Equal Opportunity process is fraught with risks for warriors, and it helps mask the full extent of racial discrimination in the armed forces.
By the time he saw a swastika scrawled in the bathroom at Barksdale Air Force base in October 2018, Deven Sherk was already disillusioned with how the Air Force handled racism complaints. The Black airman had filed a complaint alleging discrimination that June when a fellow airman, a white man, hung a noose near him on the base.
“I felt that was a direct threat to my life,” said Sherk, who was a staff sergeant specializing in B-52 bomber maintenance at the time.
Along with the noose, he reported seeing a whip on display at the hangar where he worked, with slogans including “Fuckin Attitude Adjuster” written in marker. Sherk says he never felt the Air Force's Equal Opportunity office took seriously his complaints of racism. So, he decided against filing a formal complaint about the swastika.
By February of 2019, the Air Force said it quietly censured several people over Sherk’s complaint, but the sergeant’s career was over. He says he found himself pushed out of the service with an honorable discharge after suffering depression and anxiety.
“Incidents like these must stop,” an Air Force spokeswoman said of Sherk’s case. “We are committed to ensuring our Air Force is a place of respect, diversity and inclusion.” As America confronts the question of systemic racial injustice, the U.S. military, which has long promoted itself as an egalitarian system focused on merit and achievement, is undergoing its own moment of reckoning.
Earlier this summer, as the military braced for a deployment amid nationwide protests over police violence against Black Americans, top defense officials acknowledged a lack of diversity among leadership. The Air Force’s newly appointed first Black chief of staff supported these concerns when he shared his own stories of bias during his climb to the top. The Army is grappling with calls to rechristen bases named for Confederate generals. And the Pentagon has launched an initiative to “ensure equal opportunity across all ranks.”