- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 29, 2007

President Bush and congressional leaders awarded the Tuskegee airmen of World War II a collective Congressional Gold Medal yesterday in a tribute participants called long overdue.

About 300 veterans of the storied all-black unit, their wives, widows and family attended the ceremony, which was described as the largest of its kind to take place in the Capitol Rotunda.

Capt. Roscoe Brown, who shot down the first German pilot in the war, thanked Mr. Bush and said, “We are so proud today, and I believe America is proud today.”

Tracy Allen, son of Tuskegee veteran William Gray, 76, said both he and his father felt honored to make the trip from their homes in Texas to Washington.

“It’s been a long time coming, and to have my father honored like this brings tears to my eyes,” he said. “He doesn’t talk about this stuff a lot, but he’ll probably be more at rest.”

The Tuskegee airmen were named after the Tuskegee, Ala., air base where nearly 1,000 black fighter pilots trained because they were not allowed to train or see combat with their white colleagues. They continued to face racial discrimination at home after helping to defeat fascism abroad.

“These men in our presence felt a special sense of urgency. They were fighting two wars. One was in Europe, and the other took place in the hearts and minds of our citizens,” Mr. Bush said.

The president then saluted the veterans in attendance; describing it as a small gesture to help “help atone for all the unreturned salutes and unforgivable indignities” they suffered through both during their military service and after returning home.

Peter Thompson, son of Tuskegee veteran 85-year-old James Thompson, explained how the Tuskegee airmen played an integral part in President Harry S. Truman’s decision to integrate the military in 1948.

“They were coming home and being arrested for walking into an officer’s lounge. They came back thinking they had fought for their country and we’re now equal. But it’s taken a long time.”

The medal was largely made possible through legislation introduced by Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, and Rep. Charles B. Rangel, New York Democrat.

“It is the ultimate act of patriotism to love your country even when that love is not reciprocated,” Mr. Levin told the audience.

During the ceremony, Mr. Bush jokingly referred to Mr. Rangel as “sergeant.” Mr. Rangel, a veteran of the Korean War, personally thanked Mr. Bush for signing the award legislation and appearing at the event.

“Your presence here makes a difference,” he said. “It’s not people, it’s not politicians. It’s our great country saying, ‘thank you.’ ”

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, a retired Army general who was previously the highest-ranking black member of the military, also thanked the Tuskegee airmen for their service and for opening the doors of opportunity for other minorities like himself.

“The only reason I’m able to stand before you today is because you stood with courage before me,” Mr. Powell said.” You showed America there’s nothing a black person couldn’t do.”

George Washington was the first individual to be awarded a Congressional Gold Medal in 1776. Since then, more than 300 medals have been awarded, mostly to military figures. The Smithsonian Institution will place the Tuskegee medal on display, while individual airmen will receive bronze replicas.

Initially, there was concern over the fact that the airmen were being asked to pay a fee for their medals. However, Ron Brewington, national public relations officer for Tuskegee Airmen Inc., said the group was able to raise funds for the medals through individual donations.

“This is the most wonderful day in the history of the Tuskegee Airmen,” he said. “We’re very thankful.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat; Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat; the congressional Republican leadership and other lawmakers joined Mr. Bush at the ceremony.

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