Veterans, gang members find peace in unexpected 'brotherhood'

A pioneering antiviolence program in Chicago is built on a bond between gang members and veterans who have been to war. It's gaining national attention. 

Nissa Rhee
Iraq War veteran Tyler Mason plays "rock-paper-scissors" with a teen during a day of team building games on Sept. 12, 2015, at the Rauner Family YMCA on the west side of Chicago.

In an indoor soccer field on Chicago’s West Side, a crowd of military veterans and teenage boys are cheering on a spirited game of rock-paper-scissors. In contention is Iraq War veteran Tyler Mason and Miguel Arreola, an 18-year-old from the nearby Pilsen neighborhood. After three close rounds, Mr. Mason wins and the crowd erupts in excitement. High-fives and handshakes are given all around. 

It’s hard to imagine any of them enjoying a schoolyard game like this in their normal lives. Half of the teens participating in the teambuilding exercise are affiliated with a gang. Some have been physically or sexually abused, are homeless, or are on probation. All of them have been exposed to violence and trauma.

The teens are in essence “child soldiers,” says Eddie Bocanegra, executive director of the Youth Safety and Violence Prevention Program at the Chicago YMCA. And that’s why they’re here on this day as part of the Chicago Y’s Urban Warriors program, a trailblazing mentorship that treats the mental and physical wounds of violence that urban youths and combat veterans often share. It is the first program in the country that explicitly links the experiences of veterans to those of the youths they mentor.

While the program is still too new to assess its success rate, Urban Warriors has attracted national attention as an innovative model to help traumatized youth and offers promise for building relationships between gang members and veterans that could be beneficial for both groups.

Every Saturday for 16 weeks, 36 teens and 12 veteran mentors work through a structured curriculum that teaches them strategies for coping with trauma and loss. They talk about experiences in their respective “combat zones,” bond over games, and take field trips to places like the Pritzker Military Museum in Chicago. 

“It’s very difficult to engage with youths, especially those that are far gone,” says Mr. Bocanegra, himself a former gang member who served 14 years in prison for a murder he committed as a teenager. “When I did some research and asked the kids I work with who they respected, veterans were high on the list. Both veterans and the kids in gangs wear uniforms, go on missions, and have a strong sense of brotherhood.”

Bocanegra says the idea of pairing veterans with urban youths first came to him after having a conversation with his brother, Alex, while he was still in prison. Alex had recently returned from a military tour in Iraq, where he participated in door-to-door combat, and he was struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder.   

“My brother told me, ‘You’re traumatized. It’s the same thing I’ve experienced.’ ” For Bocanegra, it was an epiphany.

“We empathize with veterans and child soldiers in other countries,” Bocanegra says. “There’s NGOs and help for them. And yet in our own backyard, we don’t look at them as child soldiers. We look at them as thugs.”

Chicago's 'combat zone'

Of the 435 people killed in Chicago last year, 46 percent were youths aged 15 to 24. The teenage boys participating in Urban Warriors are very familiar with that climate of violence. They come from the neighborhoods of Little Village, Pilsen, Humboldt Park, and West Garfield Park, which have some of the highest poverty and crime rates in the city. In West Garfield Park, there were 20 homicides last year and 41.7 percent of households live below the federal poverty level.

For Mr. Arreola, exposure to violence came early. 

“I saw one of my friends get shot in front of my face,” he says. “He was only 13 years old. He got shot just because he was in a gang and he died on the scene.”

“That changed my life completely,” the goateed teen continues. “That’s when I understood that life is a privilege, not a game. Nobody’s going to replace my best friend.” 

Arreola says that since the shooting he’s felt tense whenever he leaves his house. 

While he’s no longer affiliated with a gang, some of the gang members in his neighborhood harass him and follow him around. Whenever he sees someone selling drugs on the street or hears a loud truck go by, he thinks, “Oh snap, something’s going to happen.”

That sort of hyper-vigilance is common among combat veterans who have experienced violence, and Arreola says that the vets in Urban Warriors have helped him address his anxiety.

“The mentors told me that you’ve just got to take a deep breath sometimes. Take a walk. Don’t be stressed out about what’s going to happen to you,” he says. “I feel comfortable now. I feel myself now. I can finally get out of the house and feel that breeze on my face and feel more confident.” 

Arreola says he’s now thinking more about his future. He’s studying to get his GED and working at a warehouse. He hopes to get a better job once he has his degree and maybe even join the military.

“The kids are already in a combat zone. Our job is to show them hope that they can get out of it,” says William Schranz, the Y’s veteran outreach program coordinator and a Navy veteran. 

Nissa Rhee/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Youths and their veteran mentors gather in a peace circle on Sept. 12 at the Rauner Family YMCA in Chicago.

He says one way veterans can give the teens hope is through listening to them and respecting them as equals. “With Urban Warriors, we are bringing the veteran culture of ‘radical accountability between equals’ to the youths.” 

In the military, Mr. Schranz says, there is a lot of downtime where soldiers learn to work together and how to communicate with one another. “You can only get that by having big conversations and allowing people to talk.”

Fifteen-year-old Daniel Rios was recommended to the Y by his school after, as he explains, he “was having anger issues with the teachers.” He says that before he started doing programs at the Y, he had never left his neighborhood of Little Village.

“The Y has helped me with my anger issues,” Daniel says. “Now if someone gets me mad or gets on my nerves, I know to calm down and walk away.” 

Daniel isn’t affiliated with a gang, but gang members have tried to recruit him because of his large size; the teenager stands nearly six feet tall. He says that before taking part in Urban Warriors, he saw the guys in gangs as role models.

“But now I have bigger role models in my life, like the veterans and Eddie Bocanegra for starting the Urban Warriors program.”  

For vets, healing 

While the primary goal of Urban Warriors is to help the mentees, many of the veterans have found it beneficial as well. As combat veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, some of the mentors are struggling with traumatic pasts while searching for a sense of purpose as civilians.

Army veteran Abner Garcia got out of the Army in January. He became involved with the program through The Mission Continues, an organization that supports veterans by “redeploying” them as volunteers in the community. 

Mr. Garcia grew up on the south side of Chicago and understands well the challenges the teens are facing. The 22-year-old was affiliated with a gang as a teenager and says, “a lot of problems came to me and my family” because of it. He joined the military at 19 in order to get away from Chicago and those problems. Because of that background, he says he feels an instant connection with the teens. He likes that the youths look up to him as a hero and are so curious about his time in the military.

“I can’t see myself not doing this program,” he said. “The bonds the youths share with the vets are very special.”

This is the second time Angel Herrera, a National Guard veteran, has volunteered as mentor. The first time, he says, helped him come to terms with his own adolescence.

“I was a bad kid growing up, between the ages of 14 and 17,” Mr. Herrera says. “But for a long time, I blocked that kid off.” 

Before becoming a mentor, he says he hated kids like those in the program. 

“But this program helped me find that boy in me that was shut down,” he says. “It helped me open up and say, hey, it’s OK to have three or four years of struggles. You may not like that guy you were, but I think I’ve made up for it.”

Herrera says he hung out with gang members when he was a teenager, but never joined because he had an uncle who made sure he “stayed straight.” Now, he says, he’s become that uncle for the boys in Urban Warriors.

A new approach

Over the past year, 10 youths began the program as school dropouts, and all 10 have since returned to education through high school or GED classes. Two youths have left gangs since participating in Urban Warriors, and YMCA staff are working with three others who are considering leaving. 

Urban Warriors is singular among antiviolence programs in that “it’s research-based and on the cutting edge of what emerging science is telling us about the effects of trauma,” says Deborah Gorman-Smith, a professor at the University of Chicago who is leading a multi-year study funded by the MacArthur Foundation on the program’s effectiveness.

“We’ve known for a long time that kids who exposed to violence were at a higher risk for a host of behavioral and emotional problems,” says Dr. Gorman-Smith, who directs The Chicago Center for Youth Violence Prevention at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. 

“What’s unique about Urban Warriors is that it’s really helping kids and also their mentors try to better understand their reactions to trauma,” Gorman-Smith says. By building the youths and veterans’ resiliency to violence and giving them tools to cope with trauma, Urban Warriors is “helping them try to control some of their behaviors.” 

A study by the Justice Policy Institute in 2010 found that between 75 and 93 percent of youth entering the juvenile justice system annually in the United States have experienced some degree of trauma.

Gorman-Smith says that research at the Chicago Center for Youth Violence Prevention has found that up to 90 percent of the kids living in the areas that Urban Warriors serves have been exposed to serious and chronic forms of violence. This includes seeing people get hurt or losing a friend or family member to violence. 

In one neighborhood she studied, Gorman-Smith says there was nowhere “you can go that you would not have heard a gunshot or witnessed some sort of shooting.”  

While there is good evidence that mentoring programs in general reduce kids’ risk for violence, Gorman-Smith says the fact that the veteran mentors in Urban Warriors “can connect with youth by having really similar experiences is particularly helpful.” 

Nissa Rhee/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Youths and their veteran mentors participate in a tug-o'-war Sep. 12 at the Rauner Family YMCA in Chicago.

At the graduation of the third cohort of Urban Warriors in July, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said that his administration was working on getting funding to expand the program “to every part of the city of Chicago.”

“[Urban Warriors] can’t be just a 16-week program, can’t be just a two neighborhood program,” the mayor said. “We’ve got too many young men and women who can do right, if we’re right by them.”

As Urban Warriors enters its second year, it has gained national attention as an innovative model for working with traumatized youths. Bocanegra was invited to speak about the program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in August, and earlier in July, representatives from the YMCA testified at a Capitol Hill briefing on the reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice Delinquency and Prevention Act. While in Washington, representatives from Urban Warriors also met with members of the White House staff. 

Programs like Urban Warriors must be strong enough to withstand the dire realities that the young men sometimes face.

This Fourth of July, a teen in the Urban Warriors program was shot by another teen. 

Eighteen-year-old Adam was homeless and had been chased down the street before being shot in the back.

Bocanegra rushed to the emergency room. Three years before, he saw another youth die from a gang-related stabbing in the same ER. This time, the young man would live. When Bocanegra left the hospital hours later, he called Adam’s mentor and told him what happened.

In the following days, veterans and youths from the Urban Warriors program poured into the hospital to see Adam. His mentor, Navy veteran Jacques Rivera, visited frequently and talked with him about what would happen next.

Adam has since recovered. He still is involved in gangs, but he is now back in school and has a stable place to live. 

“The program accomplished the one thing we wanted to for the youths, which was to have caring and supportive adults in their lives,” Bocanegra said.

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