The sergeant major sat across from me, a hot mug of coffee steaming in his hand. It was 5:45 a.m. in the chow hall at Fort Devens, another day in the Army well underway. The sergeant major had recently pinned on the highest rank an enlisted man could attain; he was eminently respected by subordinates, peers and officers alike. Like most Special Forces non-commissioned officers, he looked like a recruiting poster in military bearing and authority. He was also an African-American, which in the Army of the 1980s, was of no consequence. The only color we recognized was “Army Green.”
It wasn’t always so and, off-post, not at all. Fort Devens was in Massachusetts, west of Boston. In that locale my minority soldiers were made to feel unwelcome; one trooper visiting Revere Beach with his family required local police to protect them from hostile locals. Advised to leave by police, he defiantly stated “I’m a sergeant in the United States Army; where I go, so goes the Flag. I’m staying!”
The history of African-Americans in the military pre-dates the Revolution, which the unreconstructed history of the Nation plainly reveals. African-Americans fought in the Revolution heroically, were recognized by their peers and the government. They served in legislatures, as judges, doctors, professors and in virtually every profession throughout most of the Colonies. Hundreds were held as prisoners-of-war by Britain in the Revolution. Contrary to historical de-constructionists, the founders made multiple efforts to restrict and abolish slavery as an institution within the Constitution and via other legislation. It was not until 1820 when most of the founders had died that this trend was reversed and African-Americans began to be systematically stripped of their rights.
Black soldiers continued to serve, most heroically in the Civil War, as in the Massachusetts 54th Regiment immortalized in the movie “Glory” in 1989. There were other Black regiments and over 180,000 African-Americans served in the Civil War. What many don’t know is that most of the Cavalry that policed the West during the Indian Wars were “Buffalo Soldiers,” a name given the African-American soldiers of the 9th and 10th U.S. Cavalry by their Native-American opponents. Both regiments fought the Apaches, including Victorio and Geronimo in Texas, N.M., and Arizona along with marauding Mexican bandits.
They fought the Cheyenne to the North and protected settlers and uncounted wagon trains en-route to Oregon. In the Spanish-American War, it was the troopers of the 9th Cavalry that accompanied Teddy Roosevelt up San Juan Hill and also became the first protectors of Yellowstone National Park as its first Rangers. These soldiers distinguished themselves throughout the 20th Century, but particularly in Vietnam, where 20 African-American soldiers received the Medal of Honor, our nation’s highest award for valor. In the 1980s, “Buffalo Soldiers” were immortalized by the Army at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., and at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
The sergeant major has long since retired after a distinguished military career. It was my honor to know him and better still, to call him my friend.
Al Fonzi is a retired Army Lt. Colonel and career intelligence officer with more than 30 years of service. He is a self-described conservative and active in several political organizations. Fonzi first moved to Atascadero in 1972.For the complete article see the 02-13-2013 issue.
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