Veterans Teach Gang Members a Tough Lesson: How to Heal Veterans Teach Gang Members a Tough Lesson: How to Heal

More than 3,000 Chicagoans have been shot in 2016. Steamy July arguments escalate into gunfire. Everyday robberies are punctured by bullets. Gang retaliation explodes with bloodshed. Most of the local murders have no suspect charged. And the majority of violence happens on the South Side.

The Chicago Metro YMCA is trying to address the trauma of street warfare by bringing together two different types of fighters who have a lot in common. Urban Warriors is a 16-week program that invites at-risk youth to meet with veterans who share stories about the nerve-rattling battles and mind-numbing atrocities they’ve seen. It’s a first step on the long trek to commiserate, process and heal.

YMCA's Urban Warriors Program YMCA's Urban Warriors Program

Urban Warriors is a program of the YMCA of Metro Chicago's Youth Safety and Violence Prevention (YSVP) initiative. YSVP is a comprehensive, trauma-informed approach to violence prevention that looks at past exposure to trauma as a main driver of future dangerous behaviors.

“Most vets do not want to talk about their problems to help themselves,” says William Schranz, a former Navy sailor who’s now Veteran Outreach Program Coordinator at YMCA Metro Chicago. “It’s too painful to remember what you’ve experienced and to feel through it. They’ll absolutely do that to help other people. They do it as a symbol of honor, to be helpful, and in an environment where people respect them.”

Most teens and twentysomethings in the Urban Warriors program don’t seek it out. They’re recruited in a number of ways. A hospital social worker may forward a kid who’s been shot in a gang fight. The court system refers delinquents who can’t envision themselves outside of a criminal cycle. The YMCA also has outreach instructors, some who are former inmates or gang members, that head out to street corners to find the casual lurkers who may also be good candidates for change.

The vets, many of whom have PTSD, have had time to process their battle scars and shape them into corrective narratives that can be models for the younger participants to follow.

Our youth are not post-traumatic because they’re currently in the trauma. William Schranz

Danny, one of the young Chicago gangbangers who grew up in the Pilsen neighborhood and participated in the Urban Warriors program, compares himself to an animal in the wild, always looking over his shoulder and wondering if he’s in danger.

“We’ll pick up our youth and the first thing they do is turn around and check if there’s a threat behind them,” says Schranz. “We would probably call that scanning sectors in the military.”

After Danny’s father died when he was 13 years old, he found the familial love he was lacking in a gang. “I thought of them as my family when they really weren’t,” says Danny in a monologue he recorded for the Urban Warriors story album, which can be found on SoundCloud.

“Our youth are not post-traumatic because they’re currently in the trauma,” says Schranz. “They have no separation between the trauma and the future. They’re in the trauma right now. Whereas vets have had time between their experiences and they’re now processing them.”

Eddie Bocanegra, who founded the Urban Warriors program, spent 14 years in prison for a gang retaliation murder. When Bocanegra was in jail, he got a visit from his brother Gabriel, a decorated veteran who completed two tours in Iraq. Gabriel’s side of the conversation focused on PTSD, which he’d been working through with a therapist. The Iraq veteran pressed his inmate brother to recall the black eyes and stabbings of their childhood.

Eddie told NPR he resisted comparing the street violence of their youth and the inmate suicides to war battles. “This is normal,” he thought at the time, figuring it was nothing when placed alongside the shootings, explosions and bloodshed his brother had witnessed.

Upon release, Eddie eventually went to see a therapist and worked for an anti-violence program. While doing an informal study with some of the gangbangers, he realized that the people they respected the most are veterans. Like the military, the gangs have ranks, uniforms and salutes (in the form of gang signs), explains Schranz. Those parallels are the starting point of a lot of conversations.

The Urban Warriors discussion circles are led by the veterans and focus on topics such as manhood, identity, high risk behavior and suicide. The conversations are raw and detailed, and often delve into experiences of post-traumatic stress.

“If two people have been exposed to a shooting, then they are at the right level to help each other,” says Schranz, who also has a Masters degree in social work. Reflecting on his own experience in V.A. psychiatric care, he notes that many of the therapists in the system have limited understanding of the trauma soldiers have witnessed and caused. In the Urban Warriors program, veterans can also find catharsis in relating those difficult experiences for a positive outcome.

Up until the summer of 2016, the Urban Warriors had four “classes” a year that were all male. In August, the program hosted its first group of women. “The female gang members’ experience has been even more similar to the females in the military,” explains Schranz. “Dealing with a male-dominant environment, sexual harassment and rape.”

While Urban Warriors seems like an excellent candidate to repeat in several cities throughout the country, and interest has been shown, Schranz characterizes it as still in a pilot phase. There are also several aspects of the program that need to be spelled out, including the bridges with both the youth and veteran communities.

When asked how the YMCA gauges the success of the program, Schranz says they haven’t clearly defined metrics at this point, but hope to have clearer goals by next year. Then he starts an anecdote about a couple of the program kids who joined him and another counselor on a trip to visit the grave of a veteran who died during the course of a recent Urban Warriors program. Close to their destination, one of kids suggested they bring flowers. Inside the military cemetery grounds, it was quickly apparent that some soldiers were being buried without any family present.

“We should bring them a flower,” one of the kids said, and did so. Schranz gets a little choked up at the recollection. “It’s just amazing to see a person go from having a limited level of care about people in the world to now giving a flower to someone he’s never met once.”