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  • Writer's pictureKeiana Winters

Racial and Military Identity

Diversity in the military or United States Armed forces will increase and mirror the diversity of the United States. Previous research has identified that racial identity can affect mental health and functioning in civilian American Culture, but little to no information has identified a relationship between racial identity, military identity, and mental health. This study will examine if there is a relationship between racial identity, military identity, and the positive or negatives experiences of African American males who served in Operation Enduring Freedom and/or Operation Iraqi Freedom.


A multidimensional view of culture identifies the concepts as “those sets of shared world views, meanings, and adaptive behaviors derived from simultaneous membership and participation in a variety of context, such as a language; rural, urban, or suburban setting; race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status; age gender, religion, nationality; employment, education and occupation, political ideology, stage of acculturation” (Falicov, 2013, p. 32). Additionally, “as a set of premises about what is believed or thought to be preferable in human behavior and processes among people that share a similar subculture or ecological niche” (Falicov, 2013, p. 32). The military, regardless of individual categorizations, has a collective and developed way of communicating with symbolism, that is foreign to civilians or non-military members, behaviors that are specific to the military and understood only to those within the group, and a hierarchical structure that supports their values and beliefs, which are applicable to the civilian culture (non-military society), but only serves a purpose within a military context (Greene, Buckman, Dandeker, & Greenberg, 2010; Suzuki & Kawakami, 2016; Johansen, Laberg, & Martinussen, 2013; Foynes, Shepperd, Harrington, 2013;Strom et al, 2012). More specifically, the military is described as having a collective ethos or shared fundamental traits, which influences decision making and behaviors (Greene, Buckman, Dandeker, & Greenberg, 2010; Suzuki & Kawakami, 2016; Daniels, 2017). These traits are representative of a culture.

Racial Identity

The construct of racial identity development was not always applied to the experiences of African Americans (Parham, White, & Ajamu, 2015;McClain et al., 2016). African slaves were brought to America unwillingly, then deprived of their own culture and forced, by circumstance, to adopt the behaviors and beliefs of the dominant culture (Parham, White, & Ajamu, 2015; Coleman, Chapman, & Wang, 2013). African slaves were not given the choice to assimilate into the Euro-American culture or maintain their indigenous culture or culture of origin (Sellers et al. 1998;Parham, White, & Ajamu, 2015). Since African slaves were not given the choices involved in the process of acculturation (i.e., assimilate, separate, marginalize, or integrate), for centuries, the opportunity to develop a racial identity or to be perceived as a separate defined culture was also not an option (Parham, White, & Ajamu, 2015). Racial identity is a major aspect of psychological health that can positively or negatively affect the experiences of this population (Siegal & Carter 2014; Parham, White, & Ajamu, 2015;McMClain et al. 2016;Chao, Wei, Good, Flores, 2011) . Parham, White, & Ajamu, 2015 assert that African Americans are solely a product of American society. This understanding can be an explanation for why acculturation and racial identity research initially neglected to include African Americans. Wade and Rochlen (2013) reiterate that African American men have the shortest life expectancy, are more likely to be incarcerated, less likely to attend college, and more likely to be exposed to racial discrimination. The development of the Multicultural Model has allowed for greater self-identification for individuals of color. The multicultural model postulates that each culture has its own strengths and weaknesses, but rather than view them as deficits, they are viewed as being simply different. This model emphasizes that cultures are separate, yet equal and different does not equate to a deficient (Parham, White, & Ajamu, 2015).

Military Identity

The Department of Defense (DoD) defines the United States Armed Forces all the collective components of the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard. It is assumed that members of a particular cultural/occupational group will develop a personal identity or internalized connection associated with the military, which is identified as a military identity. One’s military identity can influence the individuals’ behaviors, beliefs, and conceptualizations of situations and experiences (Johansen, Laberg, Martinussen, 2013; Carrola & Corbin-Burdick, 2015 ). These experiences will illustrate how the military culture can affect the other identities held by an individual serving in the military. Johansen, Laberg & Muartinusen (2013) provide their conceptualization of military identity. They describe military identity as being rooted in a sociological framework and based on “collectivism, patriotic and altruistic values” (p.862). Military identity, like racial identity, can be an influential factor in the physical and psychological health of the members. Evidence supports that the military is a cultural group, not simply an occupation, because of a specific language, behaviors, belief systems, and protocols (Strom, Gavian, Possis, Leskela, &Siegel, 2012; Greene, Buckman, Dandeker, & Greenberg, 2010; Johansen, Laberg, Martinussen, 2013).

The OEF /OIF cohort is at risk for depression, substance use disorder, traumatic and stress related disorders, issues during reintegration, and relationship problems (Carrola, & Corbin-Burdick, 2015;Daniels, 2017; Foynes, Shepperd, & Harrington, 2013, Huang& Kashubeck-West, 2015;Suzuki & Kawakami, 2016) . Though treatment and symptom management of mental health, substance use, and other medical concerns have been addressed the literature, racial identity has not been addressed in a military context. It is important to understand the racial experiences of individuals of color in the military and how the merging of the civilian and military culture affects their experiences.

The military is a culture, with a strenuous identity development process, which includes vulnerable populations who are at risk for increased physical and psychological concerns, and it is imperative that the counseling field address this concern and ensure that counselors are properly trained to work effectively with this population. There is no known literature that addresses the role of racial identity status of African American men and their racial experiences in the military. The research has shown that there is a strong relationship between racial identity status and, mental health and experiences of African Americans (Carrola, & Corbin-Burdick, 2015; Carter, 2011; McClain et al., 2016;Parham, White, & Ajamu, 2015; Wade & Rochlen, 2013) Adding knowledge to the culture of the military to racial identity may account for the experiences African American male veterans.

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