Friday, September 05, 2008

UNCLE SAM, TEAR DOWN THIS WALL. Thus said "Give'em Hell" Harry Truman, much like Ronald Reagan to Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Gorbachev concerning the Berlin Wall.

More than sixty years ago, the thought of white and Black military servicemembers fighting together in the same unit was inconceivable to most Americans.

However, on July 26, 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981, requiring the U.S. military be desegregated and provide "equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin."

Although the order required integration of all races into military, it was not until 1954 that the last all-black unit was disbanded. That same year Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., became the first Black general in the Air Force.

Two years later, at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., Edward A. Rice Jr., son of Air Force Maj. Edward Rice, was born.

Today, Lt. Gen. Edward A Rice Jr. is one of 52 active-duty Black general officers serving in the U.S. military and highest ranking Air Force African-American officer.

As the commander of U.S. Forces Japan and 5th Air Force here, General Rice is responsible for working with Japanese government officials and military leaders to ensure a strong defense of Japan. When directed by higher headquarters, he conducts operations in response to regional contingencies. Currently there are approximately 47,000 Airmen, Marines, Sailors and Soldiers serving in Japan.

General Rice, whose father was a scientist and his mother a registered nurse, began thinking about joining the Air Force when he was nine years old. The idea of joining came to him after his father was offered a teaching position at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.

"He brought home literature about the Academy that I happened to stumble on," General Rice said. "As I read about the Academy, it really captured my imagination and it seemed to me that it would be a great place to get accepted and graduate from."

General Rice said his parents did not push him to join the military, but it was what the Academy had to offer that caught his interest.

"It was me reading this material and what the Academy stood for in terms of honor, high standards of excellence," he said. "All those things, even at a young age, were attractive to me."

General Rice's dream of attending the Academy came true in 1974 when he received news of his nomination acceptance from a staff member in the office of Ohio Congressman Clarence Brown, Jr.

"To this day, one of my memories that is very vivid to me is the phone call I got from my Congressman's office that said I was accepted to the Academy," General Rice said. "It certainly was a culmination for me of a long time dream."

General Rice entered the Academy in 1974, during a time when the country was still reeling from the turmoil of the civil rights movement as well as Vietnam. Despite the discriminatory climate in civilian society during that period, he was able to excel at the Academy, becoming the leader of the cadet wing. The position put him in charge of all of the cadets at the Academy. He graduated the Academy as a Distinguished Graduate in 1978 with a Bachelor of Science degree in engineering sciences.

His positive experiences at the Academy carried over into his Air Force career.

"I've had a pretty positive experience overall in that I had a good start coming into the Air Force and had opportunities ...that allowed me to demonstrate in an objective manner what my capabilities are," General Rice said.

However, he still remembers situations when people around him were still intolerant of change in the military.

"It was clear there were people who were racist around me, but not who I could tell did anything that affected me in terms of my progress within the military," he said. "But the Air Force in the 1970's, just like society, was generally more tolerant of discrimination and racism certainly than it is today and we have come a long way to our benefit in that regard."

Throughout history, despite racism and unequal treatment, Black Americans proudly served their country paving the way for Executive Order 9981 to be signed.
Examples of their sacrifices can be found during and after the Civil War, where more than 180,000 black Americans served in the Union Army.

In 1941, the first aviation cadet class began at the Tuskegee Army Air Field in Tuskegee, Ala., where over a five-year period 994 pilots received commissions and pilot wings. The pilots went on to serve during World War II.

A picture of General Davis, who led the first all-black flying unit, the famed Tuskegee Airmen, sits on General Rice's shelf in his office.

"One of my real heroes has been General B. O. Davis, Jr., whom I had the great privilege to meet on a couple of occasions," General Rice said. "He has always been an inspiration because of what he went through as a cadet at West Point."

Davis entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., in 1932. During the four years he attended West Point, no one would room with him and cadets would speak to him only in the line of duty.

General Rice said General Davis is an inspiration to him because he was able to graduate from West Point with high standing in his class, overcoming difficulties and without becoming bitter or getting off track.

"Having been a graduate of a military academy myself and knowing how hard it is just to graduate when you have a level playing field ...then to succeed in becoming a general officer in a very difficult climate ...he's always been an inspiration to me," General Rice said.

General Rice credits the sacrifices that both black officers and enlisted service members made in integrating the Armed services for helping him get to where he is today.

"I think we all stand on the shoulders of giants and certainly among the early Black military pioneers they paved the way for all of us who have come in after them, whether it be General Davis Jr. or Chappy James, who I think broke many other barriers down being the first black four star general that we had in the Air Force," General Rice said.

In recognition of the 60 year anniversary of military desegregation, several press articles have been written about the important milestone with some focusing on the lower numbers of Black generals in proportion to the overall African-American population serving in the military.

According to the Department of Defense, support and recommendations for military service have dropped recently among Black influencers as compared to other groups. Influencers could include community leaders, school counselors or other people who help young men and woman make decisions about their future.

"The decision to enlist is a major one, and youth do not make it alone," said Army Lt. Col. Les Melnyk, a public affairs officer in the Office of Secretary of Defense. "They receive advice and input from many sources, including parents, teachers and coaches. Among those who influence youth decisions, the likelihood to support and to recommend military service has significantly decreased over the past few years."

Although, African-American enlistments have fallen over time, DOD officials continue to meet enlistment goals through strong recruiting efforts, even during a time of war and when the Army and U.S. Marine Corps are growing in force, according to Colonel Melnyk.

The number of Blacks in the armed forces, which in the 1980s and 90s was disproportionately high, is now equal to Black representation among Americans of recruiting age, Colonel Melnyk said.

General Rice, who previously was the commander of Air Force Recruiting Service, said that being in the military is not easy and that if it was, everyone would aspire to do it.

"I truly believe that everybody who walks in the front door of an Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps or Coast Guard recruiting office has every opportunity to succeed if they stay focused on what their goals are and not get distracted along the way," he said. "I just encourage people not to forget why they joined up to this outfit in the first place and to work towards their goals and knock them off one at a time and they will be successful.

© 2008 Integration of Races in the Military
September 02, 2008
by MSgt. Terence R. Peck



Post a Comment

<< Home