We cannot tell the story of our nation without telling the story of how African Americans have helped shape it. African-American history is interwoven within the history of our country, unfolding across the tapestry of America from the port cities where our ancestors disembarked as slaves to the battlefields, past and present where we continue to spill our blood in the fight for freedom. African-American service members have long demonstrated great courage and honor despite fighting two battles: one against the enemy and the other against the restrictive, segregated systems in the military and at home.
Yet African Americans in the armed forces overcame great prejudice, racism and hardships to serve with distinction. Consider Crispus Attucks, the son of a slave who worked as a dockworker and was killed in 1770, the first casualty of the Revolutionary War; and Lewis Martin, a free black man who served in the Army during the Civil War, losing an arm and leg to wounds sustained in battle. Consider the more than 350,000 African Americans who served in World War I and the famous African-American units of World War II such as the Tuskegee Airmen, the only escort fighters during WWII that never lost a bomber; the 761st Tank Battalion; and the 452nd Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion, proving their value in combat and leading the way for a desegregated military. Consider Carl Brashear, the son of Kentucky sharecroppers, who in 1970 became the Navy's first African-American master diver, achieving that distinction despite an amputated left leg.
Consider the first Medal of Honor presented to a living African-American soldier in 1967 when then President Lyndon Johnson honored Army Specialist Five Lawrence Joel for "a special kind of courage — the unarmed heroism of compassion and service to others." Specialist Joel, a medic, saved the lives of U.S. troops under ambush in Vietnam and defied direct orders to stay on the ground, instead walking through Viet Cong gunfire to tend to troops. He was shot twice in the process. A year later, Army Captain Leroy Pitts became the first African-American commissioned officer to be awarded the Medal of Honor, posthumously.
The simple truth is this: African Americans have participated in every war or conflict fought within or by the U.S. and no doubt, many unsung heroes exist, their stories lost to history because they weren't valued enough. Others who've served in the military include Harry Belafonte, a singer and social activist; United States Naval Academy Class of 1987 and NBA legend David Robinson; hip-hop powerhouse MC Hammer; talk show host Montel Williams; reggae singer Shaggy; actors James Earl Jones, Ice-T, and Mr. T; and comedian Sinbad, among many others. Military service is a hallmark of African-American history.
As a 35-year Navy veteran and the Navy's first African-American surgeon general, I'm proud of the contributions of African Americans to our great nation. Also, I understand the sacrifice all service members and their families make, the solemn oath they took, and the selfless service they gave to protect our nation and our people. As the director of the VA Maryland Health Care System, I'm committed to ensuring that Maryland's veterans receive the patient and family centered care they earned and deserve and I'm proud to be able to continue to serve the men and women who wore the cloth of the nation.
Dr. Adam M. Robinson Jr., Baltimore
The writer is director of the VA Maryland Health Care System.