In 2013, Eddie Bocanegra was developing an anti-violence program for young people in Chicago, Illinois. He wanted the teens, many of whom were in gangs, to have positive role models, so he gave them a list to choose from. The kids were most drawn to combat veterans who’d fought in recent wars. To Bocanegra, the choice made sense: teens living in high violence neighborhoods in Chicago and soldiers fighting overseas are linked by the experience of being constantly under threat. This Monday alone, 16 people were shot in the city during a 12-hour period.
“Kids identify themselves as soldiers, because they live in war zone communities,” Bocanegra told NPR in a segment about the program he co-directs, Urban Warriors. “They make the parallels between, veterans, you know, carry guns, we carry guns. They got ranks, we got ranks. They got their army uniforms, we got our gang colors. And the list went on and on.”
Bocanegra has his share of stories from the battlefield. As a teenager in Chicago, he was involved in gangs, beat up by police, and stabbed. While serving prison time for gang-related murder, he was visited by his brother, an Army combat veteran. The two men talked about PTSD, and Bocanegra began to realize that his trauma was not so unlike his brother’s. Today, Urban Warriors pairs kids from high-violence neighborhoods with veterans who’ve fought in Iraq or Afghanistan. The approach is based on the idea that trauma from exposure to violence can shape the way kids think, act, and learn, and that they need ways to process it. The veterans facilitate the sessions, which include sharing stories of loss, suicide, and grief.
In the NPR segment, we hear from several of the kids about what it’s like to live in Chicago in 2016, where already this year at least 244 people have been shot. “Every time you look up somebody else is getting killed, and I never know if it’s me or somebody I am really close to,” 15-year-old Jim Courtney-Clarks told reporter Audie Cornish.
Mikhail Dasovich, a Marine Corps veteran who helps facilitate the meetings, told NPR he was surprised how quickly the kids jump into difficult subjects. “One of the youth … he says to me like, ‘Hey, you ever seen someone get shot in front of you?’ And the whole room went silent, and I was like ‘Oh man, like, this quick, huh?'” Dasovich explained how he’d watched his platoon sergeant be struck by a burst of bullets. In response, the teen described watching the murders of his two cousins.
“These kids, before they’re 16, have, in essence, really been to combat,” Dasovich told NPR.
[Photo: Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images]