VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. --
On July 21st, the Vandenberg Equal Opportunity office hosted a Diversity Day event at the Pacific Coast Club.
When I walked into the PCC Ballroom, I was welcomed with my own personal Hawaiian lei. In Hawaiian culture, this customized wreath represents love, honor, or friendship upon one’s arrival or departure. I felt this affection as I sauntered through the various areas put together by Team V volunteers. I was presented with a multitude of foreign delicacies by people wearing a wide array of garments. The crowded room was vibrant in color and rich in chatter, and it reminded me just how far we’ve come as a diverse military.
Multiculturalism hasn’t always been prevalent in our military. Centuries ago, minorities and women in uniform came few and far between. However, these minorities played a huge role in the eventual progression and integration of our Armed Forces today.
Women have always been involved in the military in one form or another. In the past, however, none of those forms ever involved actually participating in combat. If I was marching through Vandenberg in the 1800s, my cohorts would all be male. But rather than sit back and accept their non-combative roles, several hundred women, disguised as men, enlisted anyway and fought in the Civil War in 1861. Most weren’t recognized until they hit the battlefield or landed in the hospital as a result of injuries on the battlefield.
Being a Philadelphia native, it was pretty amazing to read about a fellow Philadelphian, Loretta Walsh, who became the first woman to enlist in the Armed Forces without the title of a nurse, March 17, 1917. Walsh swore in with the U.S. Naval Reserve as a petty officer, another first for women, March 21. Without Walsh’s groundbreaking influence, who knows how many women would have been occupying the PCC on this day.
As I continued my way through each ethnic display, I happened upon an African-American woman who had the focused attention of several children – a sometimes difficult feat she pulled off with ease. She was pointing and gesturing to a number of photos, explaining African contributions to culture.
African-Americans have also provided some exceptional contributions to military history, despite the enduring times of national division.
The Tuskegee Airmen, the first African-American aviators in the Armed Forces, fought in many battles during World War II. Two years ago, I had the distinct honor of interviewing Arthur Hicks, one of the remaining survivors of the renowned crew. Hicks stated that one of their most difficult fights actually didn’t take place in the air.
The country and military alike were still racially segregated, and the Tuskegee Airmen were subjected to discrimination, despite their military status. However, none of these issues put a dent in their resolve as the group of aviators carried out mission after mission successfully. Their efforts won crucial battles against German forces en route to victory in World War II.
One World War earlier, another African-American, Cpl. Freddie Stowers, led an attack against German forces in France. While he was wounded twice, Stowers carried on, rallying his troops to eventually overtake the German trenches. The squad leader of the 371st Infantry Regiment, 93rd Division would unfortunately succumb to his wounds before the end of that battle. But Stowers’ herculean effort was recognized with a posthumous Medal of Honor – making him the only African American to be honored with the award for actions in World War I.
Before my departure from the Diversity Day event, I surveyed the room one last time. An Airman from Ghana had just finished sharing his pre-Air Force story. People were lined up at every ethnic station – Hispanic, Asian, Pacific Islander, African, English – all congregating and exchanging information. The room was just as colorful and full of life as it was when I arrived. As I received my departure lei, I felt that affection again. This time, however, it was a result of the continued progression I was watching unfold before my very eyes.
A progression of diversity.