Chicago Teens And Combat Veterans Join Forces To Process Trauma

Jan 25, 2016
Originally published on January 26, 2016 2:53 pm

If you took a map of Chicago and put down a tack for each person shot last year, you'd need nearly 3,000 tacks.

Of those, 101 would be clustered in the neighborhood of East Garfield Park. That's where 15-year-old Jim Courtney-Clarks lives.

"To be honest, I really don't like it," Courtney-Clarks says. "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."

For kids in some Chicago neighborhoods, walking up and down the same street where there was a beating or a shooting or a body is just part of life — one that isn't always talked about.

That's something the Urban Warriors program is trying to change. The YMCA of Metro Chicago project connects kids like Courtney-Clarks, who live in high-violence neighborhoods, with veterans who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan and who might understand what they're going through.

The program is built on the idea that these kids are experiencing trauma and need to process it, and that witnessing or experiencing violence can affect how they behave at home, react at school, or lead them to commit violence themselves.

The man behind the program is Eddie Bocanegra. Today he's the co-executive director of youth safety and violence prevention programs at the YMCA. But 20 years ago, he was a 19-year-old gang member serving prison time on felony murder charges.

Bocanegra traces the idea for Urban Warriors back to a conversation he had while he was in prison. It was during a visit from his brother, Gabriel Bocanegra, a decorated Army veteran who had done two tours of duty in Iraq.

Fresh from therapy, Gabriel told his brother stories about struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder — and how he thought Eddie was also dealing with the effects of trauma.

Eddie was skeptical, but his brother pressed him, recalling the violence of their childhood — black eyes, stab wounds, run-ins with the police. The trauma was ongoing, his brother said.

"'Every time that I come and visit you, what you talk to me about is prison assaults, you talk about people who commit suicide. ... You talk about it as if it was just normal,'" Eddie remembers his brother telling him. "And he was explaining to me, 'Like, Eddie, actually this does something to you. And the reason why you're pretty upset most of the time, or you're not sleeping well, is because of what you've been through.'"

Eddie says he was in denial. "I have never been to war," he thought. "This is normal, this is nothing, compared to what I know (my brother has) gone through."

His brother urged Eddie to see a therapist when he got out of prison. When he was released, he did eventually. He also returned to the Chicago neighborhoods where he was once a gang member and worked for an anti-violence program.

Many of the gang members Bocanegra met had witnessed violence or been victims as kids. He wanted to get to them sooner, using people they respect as mentors. He gave the kids a list of potential role models from the neighborhood; they liked the idea of veterans.

"Kids identify themselves as soldiers, because they live in war zone communities," Bocanegra says. "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."

For the past two years, he has put this idea into practice with the Urban Warriors program.

On a Saturday morning late last year at Chicago's Kelly Hall YMCA, seven veterans — a mix of black, white and Latino men, some of whom grew up in the same neighborhoods as the teens — sit in a circle. The dozen or so boys shuffle in one by one. Some are cheerful, some sullen with sweatshirt hoods and baseball caps pulled low. They grab granola bars and take a seat.

Mikhail Dasovich is a 25-year-old Marine Corps veteran helping to lead the session. He joined Urban Warriors after seeing a flier about the program at his therapist's office where he was getting help for PTSD.

The tough stories started from the very first meeting, Dasovich recalls.

"I was very, very nervous, and all of the youth were looking at me. And everyone's clowning, everyone's joking," he says. "And 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 told the group about watching his platoon sergeant get shot, right in front of him, during the war.

"I went into detail, what seeing my father figure getting tore up by rifle bullets, what that did to me emotionally," Dasovich says.

Immediately, the teen who asked the question then offered up his story.

"Right from my answer [he] goes in to describe how he had to watch his two cousins get gunned down right in front of him." Dasovich says. "And that was something I had never felt before, to have such a young man so effortlessly describe the execution of his family members."

"These kids, before they're 16, have, in essence, really been to combat," he says.

Dasovich says he sees the effects of neighborhood violence on some of the teenagers and recognizes some of the same habits he picked up serving in combat.

"I see the same levels of self-awareness with these kids when we're outside, just seeing how they're looking around," he says. "It piques up right in me, remembering just having to check my sectors, always feeling like I had to check my back when I came home from the war."

Being alert is just a way of life for most of these boys. Fifteen-year-old Noel Melecio brings up a few recent attacks in his neighborhood, Logan Square. He says he thinks the same thing almost happened to him.

"Me and my friend were walking, and I look back and I see there's one group of kids behind me, which is like two or three kids and then across the street I see another group of kids," he says. "I think they're trying to wrap around so they can get in front of us, so I tell my friend, 'Start running.' And we start running and they start chasing us."

Melecio got away, and later shared the story with the vets and kids in the group.

For Urban Warriors that's the idea: The teens talk about what they're going through, the veterans help them figure out how to process it.

But getting them to open up takes time. Over the program's 16 weeks, the veterans build trust through team building, talking and sometimes just playing.

At the recent Saturday session, that included a rowdy race through a makeshift obstacle course of folding chairs and lunch tables. The catch: a blindfolded member on each team and a military-like mandate that no one is left behind.

Eventually they break into small groups — three or four kids for each veteran. And that's where they get at the most difficult subjects: suicide, loss, grief. They might have endured the deaths of family or friends, witnessed assaults or other violence.

Melecio says it wasn't easy for him to share at first.

"It was like, all we do is just come here and sit here and just talk about feelings," he says. "I can do that anywhere else."

The program is voluntary and some kids do drop out. Melecio says the veterans are what got him to stay.

"Anywhere else anybody would just tell you, 'Oh, you'll be OK,' or they'll pat you on the back or something. But them, they like get into your feelings and help you sort them out," he says.

But just sticking it out isn't a measure of success. In fact, people around the country are weighing this idea — that neighborhood violence can cause trauma that should be treated.

In California, a handful of families sued the Compton school district arguing that trauma is a disability that schools should accommodate. Baltimore is putting workers, citywide, through training to detect and understand trauma in the communities they serve.

The Urban Warriors program raises many questions: How do you know if a kid is coping better? What about the vets? Does mentoring help them deal with PTSD? Researchers from the University of Chicago have begun studying the kids who have completed the program — currently about 80 — in order to start answering those questions.

In the meantime, Jim Courtney-Clarks, the teenager wondering whether he'd be the next shooting victim in his neighborhood, is unequivocal. He says Urban Warriors has changed the way he thinks about his future.

"The past week, I was just thinking about dropping out of school," he says. "Until today. And I see that it's a lot of stuff that I can accomplish if I stay in school, by looking at the veterans. Like I'm not sure if I want to go to college, but I might want to join the police academy or just go to the Navy or something."

For Courtney-Clarks and the veterans of Urban Warriors, that's a start.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

If you took a map of the city of Chicago and put down a tack for each person shot last year, you'd need nearly 3,000 tacks. One-hundred-and-one of those would be clustered in the neighborhood of East Garfield Park. That's where 15-year-old Jim Courtney-Clarks lives, and he says it's wearing him down.

JIM COURTNEY-CLARKS: To be honest, I really don't like it 'cause every time you look up, somebody else getting killed. And I never know if it's me or somebody I'm really close to.

CORNISH: I met Jim Courtney-Clarks several weeks ago while I was in Chicago reporting on how parents and kids were dealing with violence - more importantly, what comes after, as in, after the news cameras leave, after the police leave, after days and months pass and a kid like Jim Courtney-Clarks has to walk up and down the same street where there was a beating or a shooting or a body. And maybe no one ever talks them about it, asks him how he feels or even what happened.

What happened?

JIM: I don't like talking about it.

CORNISH: A program at the Chicago YMCA called Urban Warriors is built on the idea that the kids in these neighborhoods should talk about it, that it's traumatic, that witnessing or experiencing violence can affect how they behave at home, react at school or, worse, put them on a path to inflicting violence on someone else. The program pairs kids with veterans who've served in Iraq or Afghanistan and just might understand what the kids are going through, or at least that's the theory of the program's founder, Eddie Bocanegra.

EDDIE BOCANEGRA: I was involved in the street gangs from the age of 14.

CORNISH: Today, Bocanegra is co-director of youth safety and violence prevention programs at the YMCA of Metro Chicago. Twenty years ago, he was a 19-year-old gang member serving prison time on felony murder charges. Bocanegra traces the idea for Urban Warriors back to a conversation he'd had when he was in prison. His brother Gabriel Bocanegra would visit, and Gabriel was a decorated Army veteran who had done two tours of duty in Iraq. Fresh from therapy, Gabriel told his brother stories about struggling with PTSD, stories that he generally wouldn't share with anyone else, partly because he thought Eddie could relate to him.

BOCANEGRA: What do you mean, relate to me? Like, I'd never been to war. I'd never been to combat. And he actually challenged me and said, actually, you have. Like, Eddie, from a very early age, I remember police beating you up. I remember you coming home stabbed up. I remember you coming home with black eyes. And every time that I come and visit you, what you talked to me about is prison assaults. You talk about people who commit suicide. Talk about all different things, but you talk about it as if it was just normal.

And he was explaining to me, like, Eddie, actually, this does something to you. Eddie, the reason why you're pretty upset most of the time or you're not sleeping well is because of what you've been through. And so then I know that now. I can tell you that because of what I'm learning through this process of therapy. And I was in denial, obviously, and when I came back to my living units...

CORNISH: When you say you were in denial, what does that mean? Like, how did you react when he said all this?

BOCANEGRA: Like [expletive] that. I've never been to war. This is normal. This is nothing compared to what I know you've gone through. And he just left it at that. And so his last request was, when you come home, you need to see a therapist.

CORNISH: When Eddie Bocanegra finally got out of prison, he did seek help, and he changed his life. He went back to the Chicago neighborhoods where he was once a gangbanger and worked for an antiviolence program. He earned bachelor's and master's degrees in social work, and Bocanegra saw that many of the gang members he was working with had witnessed violence or been victims as kids. So we figured, why not try to get to them sooner using people they respect as mentors? And when he put a list of neighborhood role models in front of them, they liked the idea of veterans.

BOCANEGRA: Kids identify themselves as soldiers because they live in warzone communities. And so when they can 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.

CORNISH: For the last two years, he's put this idea into practice with Urban Warriors.

MIKHAIL DASOVICH: I had never been a mentor in any position shape or form besides being a lance corporal in my platoon.

CORNISH: That's 25-year-old Mikhail Dasovich.

DASOVICH: This was something entirely new.

CORNISH: Dasovich is a Marine Corps veteran. He joined Urban Warriors after seeing a flyer about the program at his therapist office where he was getting help for PTSD. The kids call him Das, the nickname his platoon buddies gave him.

DASOVICH: It's just a lot easier, especially when bullets are flying to say Das (laughter) instead of Dasovich.

CORNISH: Dasovich is green-eyed with a ready smile. His arms and torso are decorated with tattoos. Inked on his forearm, the name of the town in Afghanistan where he did his combat tour in 2012.

DASOVICH: And as soon as I saw the design, I knew that I wanted it tattooed...

CORNISH: He was one of around seven veterans, a mix of black, white and Latino men. Some grew up in the same Chicago neighborhoods as the kids in the program. Dasovich drives down from the suburb of Skokie.

DASOVICH: All right, guys, let's get started.

CORNISH: For 16 weeks, he and the other vets gather at this YMCA every Saturday morning. The teens shuffle in one by one, some cheerful, some sullen with sweatshirt hoods and baseball caps pulled low. They take a granola bar and a seat in a circle of chairs. Army veteran Tyler Mason is in the lead today.

TYLER MASON: I'm going to ask all of you just to check in, tell me how your week was.

CORNISH: It's here they start to share. Dasovich remembers his first meeting with the group months before.

DASOVICH: I was very, very nervous, and all of the youth were looking at me. And everyone's clowning. Everyone's joking. And one of the youth - his voice speaks up, and he says to me, like, hey, you ever seen someone get shot in front of you? And, like, the whole room went silent. And I was like, oh, man, like, this quick, huh? And I was just like, yeah, yeah, yeah; I saw my platoon sergeant get shot right in front of me.

And I went, you know, into detail what seeing my father figure getting tore up by rifle bullets - what that did to me emotionally because the youth that asked me that question, right from my answer, goes into describe how his - he had to watch his two cousins get gunned down right in front of him. And that was something I had never felt before, to have such a young man so effortlessly describe the execution of his family members.

CORNISH: It's interesting you say that because it's very much, like, inappropriate to ask someone who's been to combat - right? - like, that's - it's kind of insulting question in any other part of your life. Is it different - right? - because - I don't know - there's some recognition, I guess?

DASOVICH: I feel the question came from absolutely a place of innocence, really just wanting to know, have you seen someone get shot because these kids, before they're 16, have, in essence, really been to combat. I see the same levels of self-awareness with these kids when we're outside, just seeing how they're looking around. It peaks up right in me remembering - just having to check, like, my sectors, always feeling like I had to check my back when I came home from the war.

CORNISH: Fifteen-year-old Noel Melecio says he felt the same.

NOEL MELECIO: I can spot things that aren't, like - that, like, unease me.

CORNISH: Melecio is slim with long, dark lashes and a set of white earbuds draped around his neck. I got him dancing when he thought no one was looking. When we sit down to talk, he asked me if I've heard about some recent attacks in his neighborhood, Logan Square - people being jumped and robbed. He says he thinks the same thing almost happened to him.

NOEL: Me and my friend were walking. And I look back, and I see this one group of kids behind me, which was, like, two or three kids. And then I look across the street, and there's another group of kids. And I see the other kids across the street walking faster, so I'm like, I think they're so they can, like, get in front of us. So I told my friend - I was like, start running. So we started running, and they start chasing us.

CORNISH: Noel Melecio got away and later shared the story with the vets and the kids in the group. For Urban Warriors, that's the idea. The teens talk about what they're going through. The veterans help them figure out how to process it. But getting them to open up takes time. The veterans build trust through teambuilding and talking and sometimes just playing.

(CROSSTALK)

CORNISH: When we visited, that meant a rowdy race through a makeshift obstacle course of folding chairs and lunch tables. The catch - a blindfolded member of each team and a military-like mandate that no one is left behind.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Help him. Help him. Help him.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Go slow. Go slow.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Go slow.

CORNISH: Eventually, they break into small groups, three or four kids for each veteran, and that's where they get at the most difficult subjects - suicide, loss, grief. They might've endured the deaths of family or friends, witnessed assaults or other violence. Noel Melecio told us, at first, it wasn't easy for him to share.

NOEL: It was like, all we do is just come here and sit here and just talk about feelings. I was like, I could do that anywhere else.

CORNISH: The program is voluntary, and some kids drop out. Melecio says the veterans are what got him to stay.

NOEL: Like, anywhere else, anybody would just tell you, like, oh, you'll be OK. Or, like, they'll pat you on the back or something. But then they, like, get into your feelings and, like, help you, like, sort them out.

CORNISH: But just sticking it out isn't a measure of success. In fact, people around the country are weighing this idea that neighborhood violence can cause trauma that should be treated. In California, a handful of families sued the Compton School District, arguing that trauma is a disability that schools should accommodate. Baltimore is putting workers citywide through training to detect and understand trauma in the communities they serve.

And so there are still a lot of questions for the Urban Warriors program in Chicago. How do you know if a kid is coping better? What about the vets? Does mentoring help them deal with PTSD? The program's founders have brought in University of Chicago researchers to study the people who have been through the programs so far to try to answer those questions. In the meantime, remember Jim Courtney-Clarks, the soft-spoken kid at the start of our story, wondering if he'd be his neighborhood's next shooting victim? Well, he says Urban Warriors changed the way he thinks about his future.

JIM: Like, the past week, I just - I was just thinking about dropping out of school until today. I see there is a lot of stuff I can accomplish if I stay in school by looking at the veterans. Like, I'm not sure if I want to go to college, but I might want to join a police academy or just go to the Navy or something.

CORNISH: And for Jim Courtney-Clarks and the vets of Urban Warriors, it's a start. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.