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- American Army general
WASHINGTON – The Army's top officer for personnel will salute a legendary Black unit on Veterans Day as he pushes for greater diversity in the ranks.
Lt. Gen. Gary Brito became aware in high school of the Tuskegee Airmen – more than 15,000 Black pilots, mechanics and cooks in the segregated Army of World War II. The soldiers flew more than 15,000 sorties and destroyed more than 100 German aircraft after training at Moton Field in Alabama.
Brito learned more about the airmen as one of three Black ROTC students at Penn State University in the mid-1980s. Today, Brito, 57, is one of the Army's top officers and one of the few Black soldiers to have held commands of front-line combat units, a near prerequisite to the military's highest ranks.
On Thursday, Brito plans to travel to Tuskegee, Alabama, to honor the Airmen's service. In an interview, he talked about their legacy and the Army's efforts to diversify what remains a mostly white senior officer corps.
"The Tuskegee Airmen wanted to serve, had the desire to serve and serve well," Brito said. "In essence, they are very inspirational to me even after 30 years of service. Despite all the challenges that they may have had – prejudice, or racism or what have you – that they wanted to serve the country is something that you just can't help but look up to."
All told, more than 1 million African Americans served in segregated units during World War II. In 1948, President Harry Truman ordered the desegregation of the armed forces, a move that was resisted in places and took years to accomplish.
The Tuskegee Airmen helped dispel stereotypes that had perpetuated segregation. The 99th Pursuit Squadron composed of Black soldiers was a U.S. Army Air Forces experiment to demonstrate "conclusively that African Americans – if given equal opportunities and training – could fly in, command and support combat units as well as anyone," according to the National Museum of the United States Air Force.
Nearly 75 years since desegregation, the armed services has struggled to diversify its leadership.
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In the Army, Black people make up about 22% of enlisted soldiers, 16.5% of warrant officers and 11% of officers on active duty. Combat units such as infantry, artillery, armor and aviation, are the primary seed bed for most senior officers. Last year, about 96 combat brigades of about 4,000 soldiers were led by a colonel. Two of them were Black.
Source: U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Army
Diversifying leadership of those units has become a priority, Brito said. Leaders from different backgrounds bring different skills to solve problems. It's a matter fairness, he said.
"There's no reason for leaders to not represent the soldiers they serve, and represent the country of which all soldiers came from," Brito said. "We have an all-volunteer army, from all the 50 states and territories. It is important for their leaders – whether it's a sergeant all the way up to general – to be a leader that they can emulate. There's no reason for leaders not to represent the soldiers which they're honored to serve. That's why it's important."
A key obstacle to diversifying the officer corps in combat units is the small pool of candidates among people of color. Some reasons are historic: Many in the generation that came of age during Vietnam perceived the Army as exposing Black enlisted soldiers to more combat and casualties. That was true earlier in the war, but casualty rates evened out by the end.
Convincing young men and women of color to choose combat units when they are young is key, Brito said. It can take 20 years for them to develop into more senior leaders.
"You're not going to wave a magic wand and just make a general or a command sergeant major," Brito said. "It takes some time, decades, in some cases, to one – attract the talent, bring in the talent, train the talent and retain it."
An increasing number of ROTC and U.S. Military Academy students are choosing combat specialties, he said.
Veterans like Brito's grandfather helped steer him toward the Army. The Tuskegee Airmen and their commitment to teamwork and overcoming obstacles have served as an example to him.
"They made it through obstacles that were in their way. It's very inspirational to me," Brito said. " So whether they were a cook or a parachute rigger – whatever they were doing to support this effort – it's very uplifting."
Brito is far from the only servicemember inspired by the Red Tails.
In 2020, Gen. Charles Brown, chief of staff for the Air Force, interviewed two Tuskegee Airmen to commemorate the anniversary of the end of World War II.
“I want to thank you for paving the way, not only for me, but for so many others that have the opportunity to serve,” said Brown, the first Black officer to lead the Air Force.
One of the last surviving Airmen, Lt. Col. Enoch Woodhouse visited the RedTail Flight Academy in September to congratulate seven students from underserved communities starting there. The academy said its goal is to increase the percentage of minority aviators from less than 2.5% in military and commercial space, to at least 4% in the next 10 years.
The Airmen recognize "the importance of our role and what it means to people coming along after us, particularly the African-American men," Tuskegee Airman Val Archer said while visiting the Tuskegee Airmen Aviation Career Training program at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in 2013. "Your potential is incredible – it's more than my generation ever dreamed of," he told students. Archer passed away in 2020.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Veterans Day honors Tuskegee Airmen's legacy inspiring Black leaders