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February African-American History Month

The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African American pilots who fought in World War II. They made up the 332nd Fighter Group and 477th Bombardment Group of the U.S. Army Air Forces. The Tuskegee Airmen, were the first African American U.S. military pilots in America’s history. (Courtesy photo)

The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African American pilots who fought in World War II. They made up the 332nd Fighter Group and 477th Bombardment Group of the U.S. Army Air Forces. The Tuskegee Airmen, were the first African American U.S. military pilots in America’s history. (Courtesy photo)

MCENTIRE JOINT NATIONAL GUARD BASE, S.C. -- The United States and Canada celebrate Black History Month in February. In 1926, historian Carter G. Woodson originated this long overdue tribute, calling for the second week in February to be known as "Negro History Week." This week was chosen as it marked the birthdays of two Americans who contributed greatly to the social conditions of African-Americans; namely President Abraham Lincoln and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. The precursor to The Association for the Study of African Life and History was also founded by Mr. Woodson. Black history week was expanded to a whole month, due to the efforts of black students from Kent University during the turmoil of the civil rights movement in 1969. It wasn't until 1976 that President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month, urging Americans to "seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history." It is important, as military members and students of history for us to know of the accomplishments of dedicated Americans who made changes for the betterment of tolerance, diversity and understanding.

As a Caucasian growing up in New York, I studied the history lessons about the contributions of great people like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver (who incidentally was from Tuskegee, Alabama), the Tuskegee Airmen and others. Not until I was deployed to Balad Air Base in Iraq during the summer of 2006 did I have more than just a passing interest in how significant those accomplishments were. Like many of you, my parents taught me to be tolerant of other peoples' culture and to not judge others just because they might be (or appear to be) different. My parents could not have prepared me for what I would see in the middle of the Sunni Triangle during that deployment. Of course, my experiences as a medic in the emergency room is a completely different story, but the camaraderie that I felt there fostered a personal epiphany regarding culture and race. I learned that as a member of the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing, Balad AB (which was the reactivation of the 332nd Pursuit Squadron that fought during World War II), that I was now part of a prestigious heritage myself...I was now a Tuskegee Airman! (Well, sort-of) I decided that instead of blowing it off as a novelty, I would embrace it and see just what that could mean for me. I had the opportunity to meet a few Tuskegee Airmen and talk to them about their experiences during the war. After they asked me about my humble contributions, they opened up on a personal level. They loved the idea that their legend continues to this day, especially the fact that I was "white." The few that I met expressed joy that someone with no African-American heritage would be proud to be associated with them, albeit remotely, and they were compelled to remind me of their struggles to make just this type of thing happen.

So, I challenge you during Black History Month to look at yourself and recognize, perhaps even embrace your own prejudice, and consider how to improve relations in the name of the Tuskegee Airmen who broke so many cultural barriers a half-century ago. A great start may be to learn about some of the accomplishments that have paved the way for progress thus far. Prejudice is simply a preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience. It is a baseless, and usually, negative attitude toward members of a group, race or ethnic background having cultural differences, tending to focus only on a bias. Common features of prejudice include negative feelings, stereotyped beliefs, and a tendency to discriminate against members of that group. In today's society, although there have been tremendous improvements, racial tension still exists. In the military, our leaders strive for equality and fairness for all personnel and we all have a duty to mitigate such prejudice. It may be easier for military members to break down their cultural barriers since we work, train and sometimes go to war side-by-side, but we have more work to do. As long as we recognize our innate prejudices, we can educate ourselves and move past them. When we do this, we validate the enormous contributions of those great Americans that are remembered during Black History Month.