Today, a small group of noble and rather unassuming men will join the millions of other visitors to Washington as part of the inauguration of the first African-American president. These men could tell stories of deprivation and racism … but they don’t.
They could speak of hatred too horrific to believe … but they don’t. Instead, these heroes, whom you may overlook on the dais if the weather prevents them from donning their trademark red jackets, travel to our nation’s capital at an American moment as a representation of American service, sacrifice, honor and a commitment to excellence. Before Alabama, overcame the odds, learned to fly, and quietly went off to war.
Known collectively as the Tuskegee Airmen, these combat pilots fought at home for the right to fight for their country, and heroically over the skies of Europe and died - in significant numbers - to help a nation win in 1945 its most important foreign war.
Sixty-six pilots died in action and a total of 82 Tuskegee Airmen were killed while serving overseas. Although recognition of their exploits was long in surfacing, many today know of the superb record of shooting down German fighters and safely escorting American bombers on deadly combat missions.
I know some of them personally and will forever be grateful for what they achieved during World War II. These airmen inspired me, they gave me the courage to succeed,and are one of the reasons I joined the Air Force. And while many Americans have heard the tales of their successes, just as many may be unaware of their tribulations to fight for their country, and the degree to which racial separation and intolerance defined our lives through much of the 20th century.
I know. I lived through a piece of it. As a military brat who grew up in segregated towns, I saw separate drinking fountains for whites and blacks, and separate “colored” balconies in movie theaters. But I’m also a product of a society that has changed in remarkable ways and moved to a place where Dr. King’s self-evident truths are a reality, where just as I have, my daughter will be judged by the content of her character.
In large part because of the Tuskegee Airmen, I’ve lived the American dream. A scholarship allowed me to attend the Virginia Military Institute, the oldest state-supported military college in the country and a school deeply rooted in the Old South. In 1981, I became VMI’s first African-American first captain and the regimental commander of the Corps of Cadets. Whenever I faced doubt, the Tuskegee Airmen’s story of perseverance and excellence provided the antidote.
Since then, I have shared the American dream of serving my country that they so doggedly fought for. I have had the honor of serving the men, women and families of several commands, and have worked at United States as a military aide. The dream has not been deferred.
When I see that group of men on the dais, I will imagine what they must be thinking at that moment in which the nation passes another historic - and for some a once unimaginable - barrier. They will be there, saluting … in some ways the second-most visible symbol of the distance we have traveled from the dark days of institutional segregation.
To the many who have come before me, and especially to the Tuskegee Airmen, thank you. Thank you for standing tall for all of us. Thank you for courageously disregarding your personal safety and risking your family’s future to benefit others. And thank you for your service to these United States of America. We have not forgotten what you have done for our country … and we never will.
Brig. Gen. Darren McDew is the Air Force director of public affairs.