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Celebrating 75 Years of Black Women’s Leadership in the Armed Forces

Celebrating 75 Years of Black Women’s Leadership in the Armed Forces

This year marks 75 years since the pioneering Women’s Armed Services Integration Act was passed, which permitted women to serve as full members of the U.S. Armed Forces in every branch. It also marks a decade since the Pentagon reversed its “ground combat exclusion policy.” This had allowed women to serve on combat ships, even though it banned them from serving in direct ground combat.

These have been enormous changes, and it’s important that these historic milestones are recognized and celebrated. Yet, while women represented just two percent of the U.S. military in 1948, they currently constitute nearly 18 percent of the armed forces. In addition, fewer than one percent of deployed active-duty combat troops are women, with only a fraction of them being Black women.

We can’t forget that Black women led armies and fought behind enemy lines during the Civil War, long before President Truman signed the legislation in 1948. Their achievements often get downplayed or even dismissed because of the national narrative that appeals to white Americans. Restoring this history of Black women’s roles in the military helps us understand our history and establish a new narrative that speaks the truth.

I believe people may be aware that Black women served during World War II, but I do not believe they know the full scope of their service. More than 6,500 Black women served during World War II, including the Six Triple Eight, the only all-Black Women’s Army Corps unit to serve in Europe during World War II. While the Six Triple Eight has received accolades in recent years — including the Army’s Meritorious Unit Commendation in 2019 — supporters are still calling for the battalion to receive the Congressional Gold Medal for their extraordinary service, joining the likes of the Tuskegee Airmen and Montford Point Marines.

The enlistment of Black women in the U.S. military has been growing over the past three decades. Black women now constitute nearly one-third of all women in the U.S. military. At around 30 percent, this number is twice their representation in the civilian population and higher than that of men or women of any other racial or ethnic group. I believe the changing economic, social, and political landscape in the United States has motivated Black women to enlist at such high rates. A case can also be made that it is due to the rise in woman-headed households.

My senior year of high school, my parents sat me down to tell me they didn’t have the money to send me to college. Even with a few grants, it wasn’t enough to get me through. My dad, who was active-duty army at the time, suggested that I enlist as a reservist. I would be able to take advantage of the G.I. Bill, monthly income from duty, and have the opportunity to travel. I thought he had lost his mind, but I didn’t have a better plan. Next thing I know, I am on a plane to Fort Jackson, South Carolina, for basic training.

For the next 8 years, I was able to pay for college and travel stateside as well as overseas. I developed leadership skills that I didn’t even know I had, skills that prove to be invaluable to me even now. It certainly wasn’t the easiest thing I’ve ever done; there were times I wanted to give up. I definitely experienced my share of sexism and racism and the challenges with being the only woman or only Black woman, and I found myself in situations that could have been bad. However, I will never regret wearing the uniform and serving my country.

As I was completing basic training at Fort Jackson, my dad was on the front lines in Operation Desert Storm. What I learned is that nearly 40 percent of the 35,000 women who served in Desert Storm were Black women, including officers, noncommissioned officers, and enlisted soldiers. They endured the heat, no electricity, no running water, and no bathrooms right alongside the men. Lieutenant Phoebe Jeter led an all-male platoon that destroyed two Iraqi missiles. Captain Cynthia Mosely commanded Alpha Company, a 100-person unit that supplied everything from fuel to water to ammunition. Her unit resupplied fuel for all of the forward brigades because it was closest to the front lines.

Ensign Matice Wright was the Navy’s first Black woman naval flight officer in 1993, and Sergeant Danyell Wilson was the first Black woman sentinel at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery in 1997.

The 2022 graduating class at West Point included 40 Black women cadets — a record number of for the U.S. Military Academy, making it the third time that the institution has graduated this many Black women since its inception in 1802. A new generation of leadership is emerging; new firsts, new triumphs and new legacies will be created.

As an army veteran, it’s not lost on me that many Black women separate from service and suffer personal, social, and economic difficulties. There is also a disturbing level of PTSD, depression, anxiety, and coping with sexual assault while they were on active duty. These women are faced with having sacrificed to serve a country that oftentimes doesn’t serve them back.

Black women have consistently been the backbone of this nation — called upon to lead its founding principles of democracy, whether in uniform, at the polls, and within political office. Today, several state lawmakers are working to deny or diminish the contributions of Black women service members and the many whose names we do not yet know. After 75 years, it should be a stark reminder that we must properly recognize the valor and resilience of Black women’s leadership in the military and weave their stories into our national narrative.

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