Diversity: Our National Character

  • Published
  • By Timothy Parker
  • Wing Staff Agency

– In 1946 my grandfather, Johnnie Thompkins, joined the U.S. Marine Corps at a time when black recruits were trained at separate facilities. He went to boot camp at Camp Montford Point, in Jacksonville, North Carolina, where black Marine recruits were trained from 1942-1949. These first “black Marines” are now referred to as the Montford Point Marines and are part of the rich history of the Corps, similar to how we embrace our Air Force history through the Tuskegee Airmen. 


Sixty-six years after attending boot camp my grandfather, along with 378 surviving Montford Point Marines, traveled to our nation’s capital to receive the Congressional Gold Medal for their efforts to integrate our Marine Corps. By the time I got the call that he was going to receive the medal I had orders to deploy to Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar. I remember watching the ceremony in June of 2012 on a silent television hanging in the corner of the dining facility and reading the closed captions. The faces of those Marines were weathered but strong. They clearly were humbled by the monumental recognition they were about to receive. It was in that moment I realized that I was the embodiment of the ideals that drove my grandfather to endure such hardship. 


Part of our strength as a nation comes from our diversity. The fabric of our nation is made up of people from various backgrounds and ethnicities. While we have a rocky history with inclusion of different peoples as equal citizens with rights affording under the constitution, our progress has been impressive. I work with people every day here at Peterson Air Force Base that started school as children in a system segregated by race. In the 1990s, I witnessed a wing headquarters facility renovation to add a restroom for women. Sometimes inclusion and diversity come as a necessity. It’s a matter of survival. When your fellow bomber pilots are suffering staggering losses to enemy fighters, you don’t care about the race of the pilots escorting you to target; you only care that they are the best. Our military has a strong history of successfully integrating the skills and talents of diverse groups. 



My grandfather and men like him paved the way for me to attend integrated schools and serve our country openly. Because of them I didn’t have to attend separate training and be relegated to separated facilities because of my race. Recently, I watched the video of the ceremony and was struck by the genuine emotion displayed by former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, John Boehner. As he spoke at the congressional gold medal ceremony at the U.S. Capitol he more than once reached for his handkerchief. He spoke of how these men not only helped defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, but how they “thoroughly discredited a poisonous philosophy deeply held and long defended by elites here at home.” Speaker Boehner went on to say, “before the end of the war, the Marine Corps commandant at the time said the experiment was over; that the men trained at Montford Point were, and I quote ‘Marines’ period.” This brought forth a spontaneous and emotional applause from the honorees. 


It’s fitting that these men received our nation’s highest civilian honor because while they will always be Marines, their impact goes deeper into the positive side of our national character. Thank you to all those who served before us and paved the way.