Most of the participants in this project were African American men, with the exception of Evette. The creation of masculinity was a sentiment they expressed when talking about reasons they joined the service or what they got out of their time in the military, making comments like, “it made me a better man.”[1] When Carl joined the Marines, he remembered, “my grandmother told me once that it’s going to make a man out of me.”[2] These comments show how especially during a time where black men felt an particular need to prove their worth and manhood to society in the midst of racial strife, there were also familial pressures to prove their masculinity.[3]  This language of manhood and developing masculinity is an important factor in the decision to join the armed forces as the interviewees felt a need to earn respect from their peers.

Cultural ideas of masculinity play an important role in the development of the male identity in society, and particularly the male identity and expectations cultivated in the military. Society expects men to be physically and mentally tough, the family bread-winner, competitive, self-reliant, and in control.[4] When joining the military, a traditionally hyper-masculine institution, these characteristics are exaggerated and relied upon to create a strong and unified armed force.[5] Upon returning home, should a soldier face any injuries, visible or invisible, these engrained ideas of masculinity can become a barrier to care and recovery.[6] These extra masculine characteristics can prevent a soldier from seeking care or assistance as they are trained to be self-reliant and not show any weakness.

Calvin joined the Navy because he loved boats and was looking for a job that would allow him to work with boats and be near the water. When asked what his family thought of his decision to join, he said, “They thought it was a good idea to get out of the area I was in. Cause I had gotten into a little trouble as a teenager, a lot of fights, stuff like that.”[7] For Calvin and his family, the military was there to help him achieve his career goals, but also to provide a structure and discipline that he was lacking in his civilian life. He later relates:

Everybody treated me like a man. And then once I got qualified so fast, it really boosts my value to the ship cause the more people on board that are qualified, the better the boat operates.[8]


This shows how Calvin valued his contributions to the ship in terms of his abilities and them causing others to treat him like a man. This was especially important to him as he was the only African American sailor on board the submarine and so gaining the full respect of his fellow sailors was a top priority that could drastically altered his experiences.


The expectations of masculinity for a civilian and for a soldier, while similar, vary slightly. There is a societal expectation for a man to care for his family, as a bread winner and as a father. A man is also expected to make something of himself and outrun adversity.  As Finley discusses in her book Fields of Combat, many soldiers list their reasons for joining the military as a way to escape an option-less rural town, escape a life on the streets, and find means of challenging oneself and working on self-advancement through service.  For the interviewees, the military proved to be a challenge and a way out and up with the learned discipline and options for higher education. For Don, joining the military was because he felt a need to prove his ability to take on a challenge and take on intense discipline. When asked why he made the decision to join, he said:

 …I need to do something, I don’t want to go back home.  So I actually joined the Army when I was in Columbus, Ohio.  That’s where I was going to school.  I went to visit my mother, and a lot of the guys I graduated from high school with had joined the Marine Corps and they got out. “Man, you can’t do the Marine Corps, it’s this and it’s that….”  So I’m more like the kind of person, I love a challenge.  So I went to a Marine Corps recruiter, and I told him, “I’m scheduled to go into the Army, but I don’t want to go into the Army.  I want to go into the Marine Corps.”  And he said,” Ain’t, no problem, that’s fine.”  So he had all my paperwork shipped from Columbus to Cleveland.  And I didn’t have to take the test over or nuthin, they just went off my paperwork, my scores, from the Army, so that’s what put me in the Marine Corps.[9]

Don viewed his military experience as a challenge that he needed in order to be able to demonstrate his masculine abilities to his friends and family. The American military tends to attract people who relate to or identify with a “certain kind of hyper-masculine identity”[10] and need for a challenge where they place physical and mental toughness, self-reliance, and emotional control at the forefront of their masculine character. Once enlisted, the military works to cultivate a shared sense of identity among soldiers that values these same traits. More feminine traits such as empathy, individualism, creativity, emotionality, and nurturance, were highly discouraged[11] and essentially trained out of them as they were thought to potentially “impede the use of lethal violence.”[12]

Masculinity’s influence on the soldier is perpetuated by the father-son or grandfather-son relationship. As Karner discusses in her article Fathers, Sons, and Vietnam: Masculinity and Betrayal in the Life Narratives of Vietnam Veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, the father and son relationship has a large impact on the reasons many Vietnam era veterans decided to go to war and the following shift in notions of masculinity. Their fathers and grandfathers were World War II veterans, for whom joining the service was part of a rite of passage into manhood. These men came home from war and were acclaimed as heroes by society and role models for their children by their families, making their sons want to follow in their footsteps when the call for patriotic duty arose. Not only did sons feel the need to follow in their grandfather or fathers’ footsteps, but they also felt a need to surpass their fathers’ masculinity through their military service, especially if their father did not serve. When asked about his family life growing up, Harold said “My grandfather was a retired WWII vet. My father was a slug,”[13] showing how, while he doesn’t directly say he served because of a family tradition, he uses the military as a qualitative identifier for his grandfather who served and then came home and gave Harold a job, versus his father who Harold talks about in a relatively negative fashion throughout the interview. While none of the interviewees explicitly related masculinity to their homelessness journey, many spoke about feeling looked down upon by people in society while they were homeless. Wilbur relates the contrast of military respect and ensuing masculinity to the feeling of becoming homeless when he says:

Ok, you watch television and going into the service, Army, Air Force, Marines, Navy it doesn’t matter, it’s a great thing, but once you get out people look down on you if you’re homeless or they don’t look at you at all. Like you’re there and you’re not there.[14]

This shows a big contrast to how a sense of masculinity is built up amongst service members and could continually influence the veteran’s ability and desire to seek assistance.

[1] Smith, Harold. Interviewed by Kelsey Glander. Video. Richmond. March 16, 2016.

[2] Pollard, Carl. Interviewed by Kelsey Glander. Video. Richmond. March 18, 2016.

[3] During the 1968 Memphis sanitation strike, workers carried signs that said “I Am a Man” to stand up against the system of labor oppression. This language of masculinity became especially important to the African American community in the years following the strike.

[4] Finley, Erin. Fields of Combat: Understanding PTSD among Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan (Cornell: Cornell University Press, 2011), 81.

[5] Finley. Fields of Combat, 107.

[6] Ibid., 107-112.

[7] Golf, Calvin. Interviewed by Kelsey Glander. Video. Richmond. March 18, 2016.

[8] Golf, Calvin. Interviewed by Kelsey Glander. Video. Richmond. March 18, 2016

[9] Nettles, Don. Interviewed by Kelsey Glander. Video. March 18, 2016.

[10] Finley, Fields of Combat, 107.

[11] Morgan, Erin. “Masculinity and Femininity in the Corps,” Race, Gender & Class Journal 14, no. ¾ (2007):124.

[12] Finley, Fields of Combat, 107.

[13] Smith, Harold. Interviewed by Kelsey Glander. Video. Richmond. March 16, 2016.

[14] Evans, Wilbur. Interviewed by Kelsey Glander. Video. Richmond. March 18, 2016.