AAHM: Our moral imperative to lead by example

  • Published
  • By Maj. Gen. James Donald
  • Special to the 1st Special Operations Wing Public Affairs
“…Lives of great men ‘and women’ all remind us we too can make our lives ‘extraordinary,’ and in departing, leave behind us footprints on the sands of time… So let us then be up and doing with a heart for anything, still achieving, still pursuing, learn to labor and to wait.”

I must caution you about inviting an old Soldier like me to come and speak. One of the things that accrue to getting old is that you have a lot to say and very few who want to listen to you. I am happy to be here.

I am delighted that Army policy allows its veterans to wear the uniform at unit-sponsored events like this. After serving more than 33 years in uniform, I enjoy hanging out with Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Coast Guardsmen. So you will forgive me if I get emotional about it.

Indeed I remember my first airborne jump. I didn’t land…at least with the airplane! I was a little ‘ole country boy from Mississippi who had never been in an airplane before, but someone came to me and said, “Let’s go to airborne school.” I said, “What’s that?” He said, “Don’t worry about it. They give you $110 jump pay each month.” Now I was only making $302, had a wife and was struggling to make ends meet. The $110 was the exact amount of my car note. I was a typical lieutenant, buying a car without a way of paying for it. I remember airborne school and the black-hat sergeants who ran the course. They were a terror.

They told us about Pvt. Smetlap. Smetlap was a newly-minted airborne Soldier who just finished his two weeks of ground training at Fort Benning, Georgia. His sergeant was speaking to him just before he made his first jump.

“Smetlap, we have trained you and you are going to be fine. Just like we told you, the doors to that C-141 sky truck are going to open. I am going to point you to that door. You are going to shuffle to that door, and to jump right out there. Four seconds later, the chute is going to open. But if the chute doesn’t open, you got a reserve. You just reach down and pull it. You got that?”

“Yes sir. I got that.”

“One more thing, I have a hot date tonight. When you land, the trucks are going to be on the northeast end of the drop zone and I want you to run up there and get on the truck. I don’t want to be late for my date because of you.”

Just like the sergeant had said, the doors opened on the C-141—an exciting time—he makes it through the doors, looks up for his canopy, and oh my God no canopy. Smetlap reached down to grab his reserve parachute and the handle came off. His last thought was, “you know that sergeant lied to me, and I bet you those trucks are not on the northeast corner of the drop zone.”

As it is, your annual celebration of Black History Month—I thought I would remind you of the vital importance of programs like this and in the process, share a war story or two. Perhaps you recognize my opening remarks as the words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and his Psalms of Life. I thought Longfellow’s words were an appropriate reminder of why we are here today. That is to celebrate the contributions and sacrifices of men and women of color who have done extraordinary things in their lives and left their footprints indeed on the sands of time.

Whenever I am asked to speak at events like this; however, I am frequently asked the question, “Why is it necessary that we talk about the contributions of one segment of our population whether it is about African American, Asian, Hispanic, or women’s history, for that matter?” I think there are two reasons. First, the best explanation I have heard was by the 19th Century philosopher Jorge Santayana. “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” History is indeed replete with examples of missed opportunities because we did not fully understand the consequences of our actions, or more importantly, the consequences of our inactions. Secondly, I personally believe that America’s military has a moral imperative to lead by example. We value our diversity in our ranks. The images of American service members of all races, ethnic groups, and genders, acting as one team, whether it’s hunting down our enemies in Afghanistan, training Iraqi forces or bombing ISIS targets are great testaments to who we are and what we stand for. And when we come home, we are destined to become leaders in our community and to make America a better place to live.

Surely all of us appreciate the need for leadership as we survey the political climate in America today. But history reminds us that everything hasn’t been hunky dory. Perhaps no other period in our nation’s history was more crucial to the survival of our country and its ideals than the Civil War. President Lincoln, while speaking at Gettysburg, provided a poignant reminder of the critical nature of that fight. “Four scores and seven years ago,“ he proclaimed. “Our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war testing whether this nation, or any nation so conceive and dedicated, can long endure…” History reminds us of the consequences of our actions. The Civil War remains the deadliest war in American history, resulting in more than 620,000 Soldiers and an undetermined number of civilian casualties. Ten percent of all northern males 20-25 years old died and 30 percent of southern males 18-40 died.

Indeed as a young officer growing up in the military I, like many of you, was required to walk many of those historic battlefields. However, few of us knew much about other battles such as Millikan Bend, Fort Pillow and Island Mound that have similar historic significance to the development of our nation and the incubation of our values. How many of you knew that the Civil War included approximately 180,000 black Soldiers who served in the Union Army and that 40,000 died during the war and 16 received the Medal of Honor?

Anticipating the social changes that could be earned if black Soldiers participated in the war, celebrated abolitionist Frederick Douglass wrote, “Once let the black man get up on the person the brass letters U.S. Let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pockets. And there is no power on earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States.” Frederick Douglass was a strong advocate of black men fighting in the war. He believed that with them fighting, could come the end to slavery and the right to vote. Within months of the Emancipation Proclamation, African-American Soldiers enlisted in large numbers. In October 1862, black Soldiers of the 1st Kansas Volunteers silenced critics by repulsing confederate attacks at the battle of Island Mound, Missouri. In June of 1863, Millikan Bend, Louisiana, black Soldiers under command of General Grant repelled a major attack in the efforts of the Confederates to fight through at Vicksburg. Charles Dana, the Assistant Secretary of War, later remarked, “The bravery of the blacks at Millikan Bend completely revolutionized the sentiment of the Army with regard to the employment of negro troops.” More widely known was the bravery displayed by the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment who spearheaded the attack on the Confederate stronghold at Fort Wagner, South Carolina, and was later immortalized in the film Glory.

Regrettably, black Soldiers often faced great peril when captured. At Fort Pillow in Tennessee, black Soldiers captured were executed as a deterrent for their participation in the war. Ultimately, black Soldiers comprised 10 percent of the Union Army and approximately one-third lost their lives in that war. While the black Soldiers’ role in the Civil War was not much different than their white counterparts, these experiences and lessons-learned should have transformed opinions in our military and the nation about black Soldiers, but change came slowly.

During the intervening years of the war, the nation struggled for its identity. Moreover, the military, it seemed, had forgotten the lessons from the Civil War and its moral imperative to lead by example. So during World War I, the fighting 369th Infantry, the “Harlem Hell Fighters” as they came to be known, had to defy popular beliefs about the role black Soldiers should play in the war. In spite of the heroics of the Buffalo Soldiers on the western frontier or at San Juan Hill, they were not allowed to fight with other American units. Instead, they were assigned to the French Army—and fight they did! Indeed Buffalo Soldiers of the 369th fought gallantly, returning home with the distinction of being one of the Army’s most decorated unions with 171 awards for individual valor including two Croix de Guerre, the French equivalent to our Medal of Honor. Recently we saw the President honor one of the Hell Fighters, Sergeant Henry Johnson, with his long overdue Medal of Honor from World War I. Closer to home, the world’s first black pilot Eugene Bullard, fought gallantly for the French in World War I. This Columbus, Georgia, native was discharged in 1919 as a French national hero and was also awarded the Croix de Guerre. In 1994, our U.S. Air Force posthumously commissioned him a second lieutenant, a title he coveted all of his life. This is a great story. I encourage you to read it. Again, defying odds in WWII, the 761st Tank Battalion gallantly fought with Patton’s 3rd Army. He reminded them of their purpose. His words: “You guys are a credit to your race. You are here because I asked for the best. Now go out there and kick some ‘you know what.’” By the end of the war, eight members had received Silver Star medals, 62 Bronze Star medals and 296 Purple Heart medals.

Indeed, when I think of great men who have left their footprints on the sands of time, I think of your own Tuskegee Airmen. You know their story—young men and women of color who saw their duty and performed with distinction. More importantly, they almost single handedly destroyed the myth that a man’s fighting prowess and courage can be judged by the color of their skin. History accords that the desegregation of the entire military in 1948 was in large measure the result of how bravely these airmen served and fought. Former Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Colin Powell later wrote, “The Tuskegee Airmen served the nation not willing to serve them. Their legacy made our rise in the military possible. I stood on their shoulders, and they made America better for us all.”

In closing, I reflect of my own family’s personal experiences. My dad and his brothers were born on a cotton farm in Mississippi. All three were drafted during World War II between 1942-1945. Uncle John drove a truck as part of the Red Ball Express. My Uncle Richard was an engineer in Guam who helped build runways that were key to helping crush the Japanese Empire. My father, an Army Air Corps veteran, was an aircraft maintenance welder in 1944 in Hawaii. There was an accident, and he was burned on the lower half of his body and spent several months in the hospital. Men and women of color who fought in World War II subsequently came home. Because they were not allowed to be members of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars, dad and his buddies formed a similar organization called the American Veterans Committee. Civil rights icons Medgar and Charles Evers also returned home to Mississippi and led historic social changes in the ‘50s and ‘60s. In fact, I feel obliged to tell you that I drank the colored water in those days. That is kind of heavy for some of you. Just ask some of the folks with grey at the temple, and they will explain what I mean. In 1963, Air Force sergeant and veteran James Meredith integrated the University of Mississippi after what was described as the Battle of Oxford in an effort to keep him out. I recall the threats to my family when my brother Cleveland followed Meredith as the second black student to enroll at “Ole Miss” a year later. My father and another Air Force veteran, Deacon Banks, often stood guard at our home during particularly troubled times. But my father was determined that his sons would have the opportunity to go to the best school in the state. So my siblings, Cleve, John and I, graduated in ‘66, ‘68, ’70, respectively. John, now a judge of 28 years, was the first black Naval ROTC graduate, and I was the first black Army ROTC graduate from “Ole Miss.” Three generations of Donald Family including Master Sgt. Howard Donald’s dad are proud Air Force alumni.

Finally, it is often the veterans’ destiny to lead change in our community and help make America become a better place to live. I would like to think that the 12 years I spent in state government positions had positive impacts on the community. When you get out, I am certain many of you will be in high demand. You will likely have to decide if you will retire or begin another career as I did. I would love to read your story one day. Our experiences in the military are unique. Shakespeare describes it best in his play Henry IV: “we few, we happy few, we band of brothers. For he ‘or she’ today who sheds blood with me, shall be my brother.”

I believe this is the source of our moral imperative. Remember our history and to always stand for justice. But, we dare not rest. We must always be vigilant. There is still much work to be done. We must lead by example. We must defy the political winds that would divide us and simply do the right thing. When I look out at this audience, I see a great menagerie of what America is all about. Lest we forget the Chinese proverb, “When you drink from the well, don’t forget to remember who dug it for you.”

As we welcome more diversity in our ranks, I hope we will not forget the past. I hope we will follow our moral compass and that we will continue to lead this nation by our example. Recalling the final verse of Longfellow’s Psalms of Life: “let us then be up and doing with a heart for anything, still achieving and pursuing, learn to labor, and of course, learn to wait.”