Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Sir, No Sir

With the end of the semester coming up soon, it appears that the number of recruiters for the armed forces has increased on campus. In the past two weeks I have been stopped on my way to class by the Army, the Marines, and the Air Force (for some reason the Navy has bothered with our campus). Since our community isn't known for successful transferring to four-year universities, many of the young men (and few women) in my area go into the armed forces, primarily into the Marines. Usually I am in a rush to class, so I never get the opportunity to actually speak with most of these recruiters. But yesterday I took the time to actually have a conversation with the Army recruiters.

They are usually impressed that I was an ROTC cadet, already took my ASVAB, etc. Then they asked why I never ended up serving. Of course I told them because I am openly gay and refuse to closet myself under the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. There was that awkward silence. So I excused myself to start heading to class. I know to expect this when I talk to them, but it is still frustrating the nonetheless.

Suddenly I began to think about the Harlem Renaissance, probably because we had discussed it in my class prior to meeting up with the recruiters. But I really began thinkingjust about the 369th Infantry Regiment from New York, also known as the Harlem Hellfighters. They were known for the being the first African-American Regiment during the First World War. Nobody from the U.S. wanted to fight alongside these gentlemen because of the color of their skin. So they fought with the French army, since the French didn't see their skin color as an issue. These gentlemen served in the forward Allied trenches longer than any other U.S. regiment during World War I. The French were so impressed with this unit that they awarded them with the "Croix de Guerre." The 369th Infantry Regiment was the first New York unit to return to the United States, and was the first unit to march up Fifth Avenue from the Washington Square Park Arch to their Armory in Harlem, and their unit was placed on the permanent list with other veteran units. Also during the war the 369th's regimental band ) became famous throughout Europe, being the first to introduce the until-then unknown music called "jazz" to British, French and other audiences, and starting a world-wide demand for it.

It was amazing to me how these men made such a mark in history. Given the time period, they were not liked by many. Our own military didn't even want them serving. That is quite sad. But look at how great they turned out to be. When I got to my next class we began discussing the civil rights movement. But before we got deep into the 1960s, we discussed the year of 1948 and Harry Truman.

In 1948, President Truman issued Executive Order 9981, ordering the integration of the military shortly after World War II, a major advance in civil rights. But what was most impressive was that Truman's political adviser warned him that this was a bad idea and that it would cost him votes in the election. It may have cost him some votes in the election, but not enough, because he was still re-elected for a second term.

In the course of a little over 30 years, our military went from not wanting to serve next to an all Black regiment, to having the President of the United States ordering that the armed forces be integrated. It's been 15 years since "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was approved by President Clinton, I certainly hope it doesn't take 15 more years to do away with it. But at least history does remind us that there is a happy ending.

Thursday, April 3, 2008