'Double Jeopardy': The Twin Perils Of Racism And PTSD
When James Dantzler graduated high school in 1966, he found no one was hiring young men who were likely to be drafted for the Vietnam War. So he joined the Marine Corps.
“I felt like they were the best, and if I’m going to go to war, I’m going to go with the best,” he said.
After basic training, Dantzler was selected for a scout dog training course. In 1968, he got his orders for Vietnam.
“As a dog handler, I was always on the front of the patrol,” he said. “I was the point man, all of the time, and being the point man, you always have to be the one that’s the target in an ambush or by snipers.”
That intense stress was compounded by the stress of pervasive racism in the Marine Corps. Serving at the height of the civil rights movement in a branch of the U.S. military that had resisted full integration until 1960, Dantzler felt those pressures acutely.
“As a Black man and a Marine, you might say we had a double jeopardy,” he said. “A lot of the white guys, this was their first interaction with Black people in close quarters and vice versa. The majority of us bonded well, but you did have that pocket of die-hard racists. That made it difficult, as a Black man, to be comfortable in a firefight or encounter with the enemy. In a firefight you have rounds flying in every direction. It’s easy to kill someone you don’t like.”
Dantzler joined the Marines planning to pursue a career in the military, but by 1970, he was more than ready to get out.
"Military life had been soured for me by my experience in the Marine Corps," he said. He found his experience in the war cast a long shadow over his civilian life in the years that followed.
“I found myself constantly in a state of rage,” he recalled. “When I got out, I carried that anger with me for 30 years.“
After decades of disturbing nightmares and escalating anger problems, Dantzler was able to seek therapy for his untreated PTSD.
“When I got into a therapy group with other veterans who I felt understood and had been there, I was able to open up," said Dantzler. "With therapy I realized what my triggers are. Through that, and medication, I’m a lot better today.”
This conversation was produced by North Carolina Public Radio WUNC as part of StoryCorps’ Military Voices Initiative, and made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.