Leadership and service are possibly the most defining elements for those men and women who have committed their lives to wearing the uniforms of America’s Armed Forces. The rich heritage of military service has been both a reflection of the best of times and worst of times in our country. The diversity in our ranks has also represented a history of a growing nation. African slaves, captive and escaped, fought on both the Confederacy and the Union sides. The Tuskegee Airmen (African American pilots and aircraft crews), the Borinqueneers (an all Puerto Rican Army regiment), and Navajo and Hopi Code Talker Marines (Native American) all valiantly risked their lives in WWII for a nation, at the time, torn by segregation and discrimination. They all saw a value in a nation that had yet to realize its’ own greatness. The first woman to serve in the military was Deborah Samson for the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. Not only were women— technically – not allowed to serve, she saw combat. She was enlisted on two separate occasions under the names of Timothy Thayer and Robert Shirtliff in attempt to hide her gender. In 2005, Ann E. Dunwoody became the highest ranking female military officer in American history as she was promoted to Lt General and, later, further distinguished herself as the ONLY female “four star” general when she retired in 2012. In 2015, Brigadeer General Tammy Smith, the first openly gay general, took command of the Army Reserve 98th Training Division in Ft. Benning, GA.
These historic firsts are not just lessons in diversity. They are a history that supports the progression of a young nation that has had to, and continues, find its’ way as a leader in the world for all people no matter what their background, heritage, religion, or orientation may be.
As we celebrate Veterans Day, we not only honor the brave men and women who have served, but we also look at why they served. The value of leadership and service is the willingness to raise your hand and solemnly swear or affirm that you, “will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic.” It is that very Constitution that has a built-in protection for the civil rights of all American citizens no matter where their religious or political affiliations may lie. Approximately 1% of the entire United States population has served in the military. They are NOT the 1% who controls the wealth or owns the land. They are 1% that bear the scars and wounds to support the ideals of our forefathers. Those ideals can never be fully celebrated by songs or symbols. Those ideals assure that no song or symbol is ever greater than any one American citizen’s civil rights.
The best way to honor our veterans and their leadership and service is to honor why they ultimately wore the uniforms. Many will tell you they joined for a job, to travel, to pay for college or to learn a new skill. But most were inspired by honor, selflessness and a call to duty. Members have served as a result of civil war, world war, wars of destabilized regions and wars of terrorism. Some have served, in the midst of strong American patriotism. Others, in the face of American hatred and disdain for our troops due to politics or cultural reasons. Remember, America isn’t a perfect republic but it is a perfecting democratic society.
This Veteran’s day, let’s celebrate our veterans for their oaths to protect our great American ideals. And let’s celebrate them for the value they have placed on their own lives by caring so much for the civil rights of others.
Charles is Alliant's Director of Military Partnerships. He retired from the United States Air Force at the rank of Master Sergeant after 24 years of honorable service.