As someone who has spent her career serving in – and in support of – our United States military and its warriors, I’ve always embraced the camaraderie experienced by all those who defend our freedoms. Regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, or background, we share an incomparable sense of purpose and patriotism.
Black History Month is a meaningful time to reflect specifically on the contributions African-American service members have made to our nation and our military. They have served in every major battle since the American Revolution when the Massachusetts Black Minutemen and 1st Rhode Island Regiment – America’s first African-American unit – were integral in the battles fought to found the United States of America.
The War of 1812 saw African-American soldiers serve from New York to Louisiana and included two battalions of “Free Men of Color,” who were essential in fighting off the British invasion, notably in the trenches at the Rodriguez Canal.
During the Civil War, thousands of slaves eager to fight for their country and their freedom bolstered the Union troops. More than 185,000 African-American soldiers fought, earning official recognition with President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. The 54th Massachusetts Regiment of the Union Army, established in part by Frederick Douglass, included the first African-American soldier to earn the Medal of Honor, Sgt. William H. Carney.
Buffalo Soldiers – the 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 24th and 25th Infantry comprised solely of African-American servicemen – spent more than 20 years helping the nation expand into the West, earning a lasting reputation for endless resiliency in the American-Indian Wars. The 10th Cavalry Regiment showed exceptional fortitude during the Spanish-American War, battling alongside Theodore Roosevelt’s “Rough Riders.”
During World War I, the 369th Infantry Regiment became the first all-black combat unit to deploy to Europe, supporting the French army and earning the nickname “Hellfighters” for their bravery on the front lines. African-American soldiers continued to play critical roles during World War II. The Army’s 78th Tank Battalion was the first African-American armor unit, and the Tuskegee Airmen earned widespread recognition for their combat skills in the air.
Two years before the Korean War began, President Harry S. Truman moved to integrate the U.S. military via executive order, mandating equal treatment and opportunity for all. The disbandment of the 24th Infantry Regiment officially ended segregated units, and African-American and white service members served side by side throughout the Korean War. While the civil rights movement progressed in the United States during the Vietnam War, African-American and white service members upheld democracy across the world as they fought next to one another.
Since the 1970s, African-Americans have continued to contribute to the strength of our military – in the Persian Gulf War, Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom, and on the home front. Today, more than 16 percent of our total military force identifies as African-American. These men and women not only continue a rich and important heritage of service that began when our country was founded but also reflect America’s unity and strength as a diverse nation today and into the future.