Commander’s Commentary on African-American Heritage Month

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Scott Putnam
February is African-American Heritage Month. This month is a time to pay tribute to the arduous path that generations of African-Americans took during the history of America towards equal rights. It has often been said that to understand where you are going means understanding where you have been. In the case of the pursuit of equal rights in America, this is absolutely true.

This month is a time to reflect on the difficult road that was taken on the path of realizing the words in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal. For the U.S. military, there is a special aspect to African-American history, and often times the military has been significantly ahead of the rest of society in the pursuit of equality.

African-Americans have fought in every conflict that has been critical to our journey as a nation. From the American Revolutionary War to the Civil War to both World Wars, there has been significant contributions to preservation of our nation’s freedom by African-Americans. But they faced special challenges in breaking down barriers over the years. Often times they faced two challenges: segregation and exclusion from the society they volunteered to defend and the enemy in combat.

Even through these challenges, from the first all African-American units in the Civil War to the Tuskegee Airmen, they showed exceptional bravery and fought for their country. Below are some of the many exceptional African-Americans that have served in the U.S. military.

First African-American Minuteman

Lemuel Haynes: He served as a minuteman during the American Revolutionary War, fighting at the April 1775 Battle of Lexington. He was an indentured servant who enlisted in the war after earning his freedom.

First African-American General

Gen. Daniel "Chappie" James Jr.: The Tuskegee Airman was the first African American to become full general and achieve four stars. Upon being promoted to general, he was named commander of the North American Air Defense Command, which made him responsible for all aspects of defense for the United States and Canada.

U.S. Army's First African-American Four-Star General

Gen. Roscoe Robinson Jr.: Before Gen. Colin Powell, there was Robinson, who became the first African-American four-star general in the U.S. Army. The West Point graduate's career spanned two wars and four stars. In 1993 West Point recognized him as a distinguished graduate.

First African-American Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff

Gen. Colin L. Powell: He served 35 years in the U.S. Army, rising to the rank of four-star general and becoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989 to 1993). National security adviser to President Ronald Reagan, he was appointed secretary of state in 2001 in George W. Bush's administration. He received numerous awards, including two Presidential Medals of Freedom, the Defense Distinguished Service Medal (with three Oak Leaf Clusters), a Purple Heart and numerous decorations from other countries.

First African-American U.S. Astronaut

Col. Guion S. Bluford Jr.: After flying combat missions over Vietnam as a U.S. Air Force pilot, he went on to become America's first black astronaut. He flew 144 combat missions, 65 over North Vietnam, as a member of the 557th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam. He is a veteran of four Space Shuttle flights (twice on Challenger and twice on Discovery) and logged over 688 hours in outer space.