Black Americans have served in the U.S. Armed Forces since the Revolutionary War, paving the way for Black service members today.
“It is also important we foster an inclusive environment across the USO (United Service Organizations). One consistent finding of our service member surveys is the diverse population we serve feels welcome, supported, and included when visiting the USO,” said J.D. Crouch II, USO CEO and president. “We should feel very proud of this but always stay attuned to improving the experience for them.”
This Juneteenth, the USO shared five stories of modern-day service members who are shaping contemporary military history.
Retired Lt. General Nadja West is no stranger to being a “first.” In 2013, West became the first Black female major general of the Army’s active component, as well as the Army Medicine’s first Black female two-star general. In 2015, she became the first Black surgeon general of the Army. Finally, in 2016, she became the first Black female lieutenant general and highest-ranking woman to graduate from West Point. With more than 20 years of experience, she’s proved herself a decisive leader, helping lead the Department of Defense (DOD) through crafting the response to the Ebola crisis, and managing an $11 billion budget and 130,000 healthcare workers when she was commanding general of Medical Command.
Retired Lt. Col. Shawna Rochelle Kimbrell made headlines when she became the first Black female fighter pilot for the Air Force. Throughout her school years, she set her sights on the sky. As a kindergartner, she wanted to be an astronaut, but soon shifted her focus from spaceships to jets. Determined, she joined the Civil Air Patrol, worked at air shows, earned a private pilot’s license and earned a spot in the Air Force Academy. Although naysayers told her to have a back-up plan because they believed her goals were unrealistic, to Kimbrell, that wasn’t an option. In 1988, Kimbrell graduated from the Air Force Academy and earned her pilot wings the following year. She’s now a decorated Air Force veteran, having earned an Air Medal, an Aerial Achievement Medal and an Army Commendation Medal, just to name a few. With a full, successful military career behind her, Kimbrell shows no signs of slowing down. Today, she dedicates her days to help future officers at the Air Force Academy, where she teaches physical education and is the academy’s Director of Culture, Climate and Diversity.
The first-ever Black female plebe to attend and graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy, Janie L. Mines first stepped onto campus in 1976. “The academy wasn’t ready for [women],” Mines said in an interview with the DOD. “It just happened quickly, and it needed to be done. The academy considered itself to be a combat school, and [women] were not allowed to serve in combat. So, we were seen as taking up spots for good combat officers that were needed, because we ‘couldn’t do the job.’ Additionally, there was a general belief that as Black women … I would not be able to lead in what was at that time a white-male Navy.” Despite being accepted to other prestigious universities, Mines was determined to attend the Academy and answer the call to serve. “When the Academy contacted me and said I was going to be the only Black woman who would be admitted, I felt like it was something I had to do.” After graduation, Mines went on to become a lieutenant in the Navy Supply Corps and one of the first women to ever serve on a Navy ship. Today, she mentors young midshipmen, is the author of “No Coincidences: Reflections of the First Black Female Graduate of the United States Naval Academy” and is a member of the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Service.
On January 21, 2021, retired Gen. Lloyd Austin was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in a near-unanimous vote to become the first Black defense secretary of the United States. A retired Army four-star general, he previously attended West Point and was soon commissioned as a second lieutenant. Austin served more than 40 years in the Army. He was the 33rd vice chief of staff of the branch and was the last commanding general of the U.S. Forces – Iraq Operation New Dawn. In 2013, President Barack Obama appointed him commander of United States Central Command, making Austin the first Black person to ever hold the position. In 2016, he retired from the military as a decorated and distinguished Army veteran with many honors, including a Silver Star and Humanitarian Service Medal. In the private sector, he served on several boards until President Joe Biden nominated him to be secretary of defense in 2021 — where he serves today.
Retired Col. Merryl Tengesdal is the first, and currently the only, Black woman to fly a U-2 spy plane, which is utilized for the Air Force’s high-altitude missions. After graduating from the University of New Haven, Tengesdal first served in the Navy flying helicopters. She went on to become an instructor pilot, training Navy and Air Force students at Joint Student Undergraduate Pilot Training. She transferred to the Air Force when her Naval obligation was complete. Though she describes being the first Black woman to fly a U-2 plane as “surreal,” she also says it’s a “blind spot.” “I try not to get caught up in being the only Black female. I just want to keep being inspirational and motivational for other people,” Tengesdal said. During training, Tengesdal’s instructors told her there would always be people who would say she was there because of her race and gender, and others who would say she shouldn’t be there because of those things. One instructor reminded her that she was incredibly talented and would keep proving to others that she belongs at the top – and soon enough, the critics wouldn’t have those excuses anymore. Today, she reflects on that conversation in instances of self-doubt. Tengesdal retired in 2017 and has had many adventures since, including being a contestant on “Tough as Nails,” a CBS reality show.