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Walter Reed Bethesda Observes African American History Month


By Bernard S. Little

WRNMMC Command Communications

The Multicultural Committee at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center hosted an African-American/Black History Month program Feb. 28 in the America Building at WRNMMC. The ceremony highlighted this year's theme, "African Americans in Times of War," focusing on the contributions of African-American service members to the U.S. military throughout history.
Command Sgt. Maj. Michelle Jones, of the U.S. Army Element-North at WRNMMC, and other speakers during the program emphasized that America's strength comes from its diversity and contributions of all people, which is reflected in today's U.S. military.
Jones explained throughout history, even during times of racial tensions, "African Americans have been a constant and visual presence in the U.S. military. Throughout this distinguished history we have honorably served during war and peace, [and] I challenge each of you to not forget the many sacrifices African American veterans before us have made to ensure doors opened for those of us who followed in their precious footsteps," said the daughter of a Vietnam Army veteran who served more than 20 years in uniform. “It's only fitting we take time to recognize and pay homage to those who paved the way,” she added.
Army Chaplain (Maj.) Rickie Wambles, who provided the program’s invocation, agreed that African Americans who have served in uniform, “through their sheer determination and courage, paved the way for others to follow. Their lives of sacrifice and selfless service make a difference in our world [and] changed the course of history for the good of all. Such men and women are our nation's true heroes, and today the tremendous impact of their lives continues to inspire us to greatness, reminding us of all what we can be as a nation and as a people."
Also during the program, services members gave a living history presentation sharing information about the contributions of noted African American Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines whose service influenced others.
A Sailor portraying U.S. Navy Adm. Michelle Howard explained that the U.S. Naval Academy graduate was the first African-American woman to command a U.S. Navy ship, the USS Rushmore, the first to achieve two- and three-star rank, as well as the first woman to become a U.S. Navy four-star admiral. Howard was also the first female graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy selected for flag rank. She retired in January after 36 years in uniform.
A Soldier portraying William H. Carney, the first African American to be awarded the Medal of Honor in 1900, stated that Carney earned the military's highest honor for his heroic and gallant service during the Civil War’s Battle of Fort Wagner in 1863. Born as a slave, Carney served in the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry and retrieved the American flag of his unit when his comrade was fatally wounded. Carney continued to march forward with the flag despite suffering multiple serious wounds himself.
Howard P. Perry, the first African-American U.S. Marine Corps recruit following Executive Order 8802, was also recognized with a portrayal at the Walter Reed Bethesda program. The last branch to accept African Americans into its ranks, the USMC opened its doors to blacks in June 1942 with the acceptance of African Americans as recruits in segregated all-black units. Perry was the first African American to arrive for basic training Aug. 26, 1942 at Montford Point in North Carolina. He later served as a combat cook with the 51st Defense Battalion and is credited with paving the way for other African Americans to serve in the USMC.
An Airman portraying Daniel "Chappie" James explained that James was the first African American to achieve the rank of four-star general in the U.S. Armed Forces, pinning on the rank Sept. 1, 1975. James graduated from Tuskegee University in 1942 and flew combat missions during the Korean and Vietnam Wars. He also received the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, two Air Force Distinguished Service Medals, two Legion of Merits, three Distinguished Flying Crosses, Meritorious Service Medal and 14 Air Medals.
Closing the ceremony, WRNMMC Command Master Chief Sean Brown said, "Diversity is the strength of America. We can utilize our differences as strengths, and celebrate knowing that what makes us different is what truly makes us stronger."
Navy Hospital Corpsman 1st Class Tavarae Lewis, a member of the Multicultural Committee at Walter Reed Bethesda, said "While we come from different walks of life and experiences, it is the belief in this tenant that unites us as one America. However, it is important to take time to reflect on the many contributions various communities have made to this great nation. In the words of our current Director of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Navy Capt. (Dr.) Mark Kobelja: ‘The U.S. military does not practice diversity, we are diversity. Hence, that is what makes us the most capable force of good on the globe,’” Lewis added.
Navy HM3 Jared Reiber, also a member of the WRB Multicultural Committee, added, “The importance of Black History Month is much more than just the famous people we see on the screen. I think about it as more of everyone who is a part of it. To me, it means the heritage of America."