Strangely enough, it didn’t occur to me that I came from a military family until I was a veteran myself. I joined the Navy in 1999 and still serve in the Navy Reserves today. But my service was, and is, very different than that of my family. My father served in the peacetime Army in the 1950s and my uncle (my father’s younger brother) was a Marine infantryman who served two combat tours in Vietnam. They each had very different military experiences, but both volunteered to serve in uniform for an organization steeped in racism in defense of a country that saw them as less than equal.
Perhaps the reason that I didn’t see myself as being in a veteran family was that my path to service was largely inspired by my parents’ very different volunteer national service — as members of the Peace Corps stationed in the West African country of Togo in the early ’60s. I remember my father saying that, despite the challenges of being black in a racist Army, he was proud of his military service and the importance of serving his country. But it was also clear that he was equally proud of his Peace Corps service and, because it was how they met, the Peace Corps was literally responsible for my existence. I didn’t get to know my Marine Corps veteran uncle well until after both my father’s death and when I started working for IAVA. In that time though, I learned much more about his experiences during and after his service in Vietnam.
The more I learned from my uncle — about his experiences and his memories of my father’s Army service — the more my eyes were opened to the service and sacrifice of my fellow minority service members throughout America’s history. Now, as CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, I draw from that appreciation every day. Part of what initially drew me to IAVA is the inclusive culture of the organization and its longstanding commitment to represent veterans from every background.
There are, at last count, about 18 million veterans in America; just over 2 million of them are African American. This is an incredible, and growing, number, and it is one that represents the opportunities for men and women of all backgrounds to learn the tremendous skills that a military career can impart.
According to the DoD, African Americans made up 17 percent of active-duty military in 2017; they represent 6 percent of IAVA’s membership. These are vital statistics that deserve to be humanized, especially as we celebrate Black History Month. Every February, we have the chance to reflect on and celebrate the many contributions of African Americans in our history. Without a doubt, our military history is a point of pride for many Americans, but we rarely take the opportunity to thank the many minorities and women who have helped it achieve the greatness it is known for around the world.
For example, just over 100 years ago during World War I, the Harlem Hellfighters battled Germans abroad and racism at home, demonstrating a remarkable commitment to country. The 369th regiment spent 191 days on the front, more than any other Americans, and besides courageously fighting in one of the deadliest conflicts in history, its members also spread a love of jazz and American culture to Europe.
In 1941, the 926 all-black Tuskegee Airmen (one of whom was recently honored during the State of the Union address) carried out hundreds of escort missions during World War II, never losing a single plane to the enemy. In the same war, Oleta Crain was one of three black women who entered officer training and the only female black officer to be retained after the war. During her years in service and later as a civilian, she fought against racism and segregation in military training and was a trailblazer for both female and minority service members.
Because of the bravery of these and other people of color before us, the 2 million African Americans who have returned from our more recent conflicts continue to build on a military foundation that is increasingly diverse and inclusive. But not all of these heroes are able to come home.
In 2005, Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn C. Cashe suffered second and third degree burns while rescuing trapped soldiers from a burning vehicle in Iraq. Refusing to evacuate via helicopter until all other soldiers had been safely moved, his first words upon regaining consciousness later were, “How are my boys?” He died as a result of his injuries and posthumously received the Silver Star; there is an ongoing campaign to upgrade Cashe’s Silver Star to the Medal of Honor.
The family of 2nd Lt. Richard Collins III, commissioned into the Army just days before he was stabbed to death in what prosecutors say was a racially motivated attack, continue to fight for the right to bury their son with military honors. The son and grandson of military veterans, Collins was deemed not eligible for burial with military honors because he had not yet checked in to his first command and, therefore, not yet on active duty.
These are just a handful of the stories of heroism, determination and service African Americans have contributed to our military history. They serve as inspiration not only to other Americans of color who would pursue a career in uniform, but to all Americans who believe in the power and fortitude of the service members who devote their lives to protecting our country.
Jeremy Butler is the chief executive officer of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.