Part II of a three-part series highlighting the resiliency, commitment, and impact
of African American Veterans and Families.
By Amanda Woodyard, MCEC®
As a military spouse and parent, my first wake up moment came when we were on our fourth move.
We had just completed our PCS (permanent change of station) to Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., and were staying in a one bedroom TLF for the next two months until our house became available. In order to break up the monotonous days of living in our small accommodations, one day I took our girls, then ages eight and ten, to the base playground.
While almost melting in the Vegas heat, I overheard our oldest tell the youngest “Don’t make friends, we’re going to leave them anyway. At least we have each other.”
I hid my tears. This was my first realization of how my husband’s transient Air Force career was impacting our school-age girls. Upon arriving at each new school and community, what was most important to our girls was making new friends, no matter the race, gender, or ethnicity. As parents, the soonest a new friend was made, we knew this would make the transition easier. It was the first step to getting acclimated.
Military students and families often gravitate to friends who have shared experiences. Race is rarely an issue. The military communities have a shared mission, serving our country.
There are, however, many differences between living on a military installation and living in the community. The comforts of living on a military installation do not always translate to the community outside the gates of a military base.
I’ve seen my husband treated very differently when he has been in uniform compared to times in civilian clothes. We have had many experiences where the attention we’ve gotten has been obvious simply because we are of color.
For example, when we were stationed in Alabama, I took our girls to a ballet performance where we were the only African American family in attendance. After the performance a gentleman came and asked the names of my daughters, then ages two and four. Two days later, my neighbor came and gave me a copy of the local newspaper. Our picture was on the front page, above the fold of the entertainment section.
I am sure we didn't make the paper simply because my girls were dressed alike and my youngest was sucking her thumb. I would surmise, it was because we were the only African Americans in attendance among a predominately white audience.
When possible, we often moved, like most military families at the end of the school year. Our plan was to make each move less disruptive as possible for our girls. In doing so, for each new assignment, my husband found a house, and set it up while the girls and I returned to my parents’ hometown in Jacksonville, NC.
We always looked forward to reconnecting with family and friends for the summer. No matter where we were stationed, we always spent the summers with my parents and grandparents.
My family has had a family reunion in a small town, not far from Camp Lejeune, NC near Jacksonville, for the past 52 years. This has been and continues to be the foundation and cornerstone of our life.
Often our family was only able to make these visits twice a year - Christmas and the summer. Our girls regularly share how most of their friends lived in the same neighborhood close to their grandparents, a luxury they did not have. During our family reunion celebration, we spent four consecutive days reconnecting, sharing meals, participating in activities, including an early morning parade escorted by the town mayor, the crowning of the oldest family member “King and Queen”, a day of dancing and games, and Sunday church service and finally a day at Topsail Beach.
These are familiar family traditions shared by many, especially those in the African American community, honoring those who have paved the way for us and those who will come behind us.
It is a staple rooted in the appreciation of those who gave so much from having so little. With PCS moves being our norm, maintaining these traditions has been essential for our family.
It provided us with a home base in spite of our required moves. It also provided a great sense of security. For my family, it does represent our past and secures our future. The stories told firsthand by my elders highlighted clear indicators of the struggles they experienced because of the inequities they endured.
We have learned equality and equity are not the same. Unfortunately, some of those inequities still exist and are also shared experiences of military-connected families of color.
We learned something different from each one of our assignments. Some places were more progressive than others. Our experiences in Alabama, Illinois, and rural North Carolina proved challenging as a family of color.
Our daughters were often the only African American children in their class, on the softball field, or horseback riding team. One day my oldest daughter came home and said she was teased because she spoke like a white person. My response to her was “Good diction was not based on race.”
Our youngest daughter was bullied because she had white and black friends.
I also had a few unpleasant encounters, such as the racially insensitive comment I experienced while attending a softball tournament. As I sat in the sweltering sun in Illinois, I was told I was lucky my skin was dark and therefore we didn’t need sunscreen. I just shook my head in disbelief and turned my attention to the game.
The rich experiences we have had during our 27-year military career far outweigh our speckled negative interactions surrounding race. Our biggest challenge has often been not living near family.
In those cases, our military family became our family by developing lifelong friendships, while supporting one another as we managed deployments, separations, and multiple moves. For military-connected families we bonded over the commonality of serving our country. We welcomed the opportunities to experience different countries, cultures, and communities.
I am optimistic about the changes that are on our horizon. Young students of all races have picked up the torch and taken the charge to make sustainable positive change for our future.
The vast experiences of military youth has provided them with a solid platform of understanding and tolerance, learned from their diverse worldwide interactions and appreciation for multiculturalism.
As stated by Amanda Gorham, the young 2021 poet laureate, “We are striving to forge a union with purpose. To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions of man.”
These are words spoken of a future leader, and I believe there are many more young adults who echo her sentiments. I am hopeful.
As Mary McLeod Bethune once said, “The progress of the world will call for the best that all of us have to give.”