GENERAL SESSION 3: VETERAN VOICES: DESEGREGATION’S IMPACT ON THE INDIVIDUAL EXPERIENCE
July 28, 2023 at 2:00PM ET
Welcome and Introductions — Dr. Jason Parker
Opening Remarks — Rawn James, Moderator
Amb. John L. Estrada, former United States Ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago and 15th Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps
Adm. (Ret.) Michelle Howard, the highest ranking African American in U.S. Navy history and first woman to achieve four-star rank in any branch of the U.S. Armed Forces
Brig. Gen. Terrence A. Adams, Director, Cyberspace Operations and Warfighter Communications, U.S. Air Force
Brig. Gen. (Ret.) Donald Scott, the first graduate of HBCU Lincoln University to earn a star in the U.S. Army
Welcome to the first timers. Welcome back to those who were with us this morning. My name is Jason Parker. I am a history professor at Texas A&M University and I am a member of the board of directors of the Truman Library Institute that has brought us here today. I am here to introduce our third session, the session titled, well, it’s behind me, “Veteran Voices: Desegregation’s Impact on the Individual Experience.”
In his autobiography, Colin Powell, the first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the first Black Secretary of State, said that with Executive Order 9981, the military began “living the democratic ideal ahead of the rest of the country, with less discrimination, a true merit system, and a leveler playing field”. The opportunity created by Truman’s action allowed Powell, once again, to “love my country with all its flaws and to serve her with all my heart. This afternoon, we have the honor of hearing from four veterans about how Executive Order 9981 impacted their lives and careers.
Our moderator will be Rawn James Jr. Rawn is the author of the “The Double V: How Wars, Protest and Harry Truman Desegregated America’s Military.” The book examines the remarkable history of how the struggle for equality in the military helped to drive the fight for equality in civilian society. His previous books include “Root and Branch: Charles Hamilton Houston,” “Thurgood Marshall and the Struggle to End Segregation,” and my favorite of his, “The Truman Court: Law and the Limits of Loyalty.” A graduate of Yale University and Duke University School of Law, James has practiced law for two decades here in Washington D.C.
I’m going to give little thumbnail intros of the rest of our panelists so that we can get going and make up some of the time we lost for starting late. Ambassador John Estrada served in the Marine Corps for 34 years. He’s now former Ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago. Admiral Michelle Howard (Retired) from the U.S. Navy is one of our panelists. Brigadier General Terrence Adams from the U.S. Air Force is with us today, as is a fellow board member and supporter of the institute, Brigadier General Donald Scott (Retired) from the U.S. Army.
It is my pleasure to invite this distinguished company to the stage. Join me in welcoming our panel. [Applause]
Good afternoon and thank all of you for spending some of your time with us to discuss this very important topic. I am truly honored to be sitting on this stage with such a distinguished panel. The knowledge that they have, the experience that they have, and what they have done to get that experience truly leaves me humbled to be sitting here with them this afternoon. Also, I wanted to thank the Truman institute. I had the pleasure of speaking at the Truman Presidential Library a few years ago and I really enjoyed the experience. It’s a wonderful place to visit. If you get the chance, I encourage you to visit.
Another place I would encourage you to visit is not far from here, and that’s the Pentagon. It is not only the largest office building in the world, for better or for worse, but [Laughter] it is an actual museum of artifacts. Things that you can see just walking down the hall, you see people doing their jobs, you see people of all races, the entire panoply that makes up our country, and you see them within your first five minutes of walking in the Pentagon.
What you also see along the walls, or the “corridors” as we call them, are artifacts from some of our most renowned generals. You see Gen. McArthur’s pipe there, [Laughter] but also, just the regular service men and women who have served our country through the ages, and it is really, really something to see. I enjoy going there. I enjoy when I have some time and take a lunch break and being able to walk and see what’s on the walls. There are different corridors. There’s one corridor devoted entirely to the history of African Americans serving in our military.
That would not have happened at its full purpose without Harry S. Truman, who came to his civil rights awaking somewhat slowly and then abruptly. I was very happy to take part in a PBS documentary, I’m sure you can find it, discussing the blinding of Isaac Woodard. This was an African American serviceman returning from oversees duty, and he was, after being confronted by a bus driver in South Carolina on the bus he was driving, was pulled off the bus and beaten by two police officers, and he woke up the next morning in jail blind.
Harry Truman heard this story in the White House, in the Oval Office, and I have said for years, I truly believe, if there was a moment when Harry Truman really decided that he needed to desegregate America’s Armed Forces was when he learned of the blinding of Isaac Woodard, because he said to Walter White, the Executive Director of the NAACP, “I had no idea it was as bad as that.”
With that, I’ll turn it over to our distinguished panelists.
Thank you. Master Chief, are you in the audience? Master Chief Williams? Please come down here. [Laughter] I’m going to talk about you while you come down, [Laughter] and take your time, [Laughter] because you’re of another generation, although I’m kind of on the same side of the calendar as you are. [Laughter]
When Truman commissioned the committee for civil rights, one of the things they did was look at the state of the Armed Forces. The number of enlisted officers who were African American was miniscule. By the time the commission wrote that report a couple of years after World War II, the Marine Corps had zero African American officers, the Navy had two, the emerging Air Force had a couple, and the Army had a couple. So, the bulk of our presence in the armed forces was the enlisted force.
Master Chief Williams came into the Navy in 1951. He could not serve as an officer. He served as a cook, but he was a leader, and by the time the 70s rolled around and the navy has truly not integrated, Elmo Zumewalt comes in and he selects Master Chief Williams as his adviser, because he is a leader and he’s one of the few people of seniority as an enlisted person who knows how the Navy works and could talk truth to what’s going on.
If you want to see the legacy of Truman’s executive order, it’s Master Chief Williams’ son, Vice-Admiral Mel Williams, who was a submarine officer, who was my boss as a three-star when I was a one-star. [Applause] If you want to see the continuing legacy of African Americans, it’s Master Chief Williams’ grandson, a one-star in the Marine Corps. Mel Williams, his grandson, and I would not be here if not for his groundbreaking commitment to the Navy, and if you want to know more, he and his son published a book on leadership, “Navigating the Seven Seas.”
Master Chief, I’ve never had a chance to publicly thank you for what you’ve done. People say I paved the way, but you paved the way. [Applause]
Melvin Williams Sr.:
My pleasure. [Applause]
Well done, admiral. [Laughter] [Applause]
Oh, by the way, I retired as a four-star admiral. [Laughter] [Applause]
Yes, ma’am. [Laughter] Well, good afternoon, everyone. I am Donald Scott and I am just honored to be here, but more importantly, I’m blessed to remember not only the signing date, but where I was, and the pathway that had led me to this moment.
When your grandfather signed the order, I was 10 years old, and I was attending a racially segregated school in Northeast Missouri that consisted of three rooms, three teachers, for 12 grades. The outlook for my life journey at that time was I could either be a railroad worker like my dad, or I could go to Chicago and get a job in one of the factories like my sisters, or I could join one of the military services that was commanded by White officers and maybe be a sergeant or a lieutenant, but things happened because of the signing of 9981.
The Supreme Court integrated schools in Missouri and the South, and as a senior, I was integrated into the nearest White high school, graduated, and was taken to college by my brother-in-law, and I went to Lincoln University of Missouri, which by the way, there’s one other Lincoln graduate in here, my dear friend, Dorothy Gilliam. Lincoln is the only historic Black college that was founded by former slaves who were civil war veterans. So, I go to Lincoln and you had to take ROTC. So, I get into ROTC and it’s a match, and I really love it, I enjoy it. I graduate with a bachelor’s degree as a distinguished military graduate, and this was in 1960.
So, shortly after I entered the military, I married my late wife of 57 years, and when we entered, we went through 30 years, eight months, and 17 days, [Laughter] and when we entered in 1960, there were no Black generals or admirals in any of the services, the army was still using a racially coded personnel system called the “daily morning report” that was coded to identify White and Black soldiers. So, if your name had a 1 after it, you were White. If it had a 2, you were Black.
The jobs that were most available to Blacks then was staff jobs, usually either logistics or transportation, and if you ever saw a Black flying a helicopter, you knew he could walk on water [Laughter] because it was virtually impossible to get through and pass flight school, and rare did you find a Black officer who had graduated from Command and General Staff College, which is a midlevel upward mobility school. That was in 1960, so by the time that I had graduated. By the time that I had retired in 1991, there was a total of 120 Black officers in all the services who had made general officer or flag officer, and I was one of them. There were also search firms that had been interested in trying to recruit retired generals for certain executive level jobs, and I made that list as well.
Now, quickly, let me tell you when I first realized the impact your grandfather’s order had on my life, and this was in 2019, I’m at the Truman Library Institute Auditorium, I’m listening to Judge Gergel talking about his book about the blinding of Isaac Woodard. When Judge Gergel started talking about the political climate of 1948, it was like an angel hit me on the head with a rubber mallet [Laughter] and said, “Man, you were 10 years old in a racially segregated school, and if he hadn’t signed that order, you would not have been a general, and had you not been a general, you would not have been hired by Maynard Jackson to be his Chief Operating Officer for the City of Atlanta. Had that not happen, you would not have been hired by Bill Clinton to be the Founding Director of AmeriCorps’ National Civilian Community Corps, and had that not happen, you would not have been selected to be the Chief Operating Officer for the Library of Congress.”
I say to you, in the 20 seconds I’ve got left, [Laughter] if he had not signed that order, I would not be on this stage speaking to you about that great moment. Thank you very much. [Applause]
John L. Estrada:
Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, guests, supporters of the Truman Library Institute. It’s a great honor to be here this evening to share my story. So, how did 9981 impact me when I wasn’t around 75 years ago? [Laughter] How did it impact my career?
He just said I’m old. [Laughter]
He’s an ambassador. He can say whatever he wants.
Okay, all right. [Laughter]
John L. Estrada: So, my story is as a 14-year-old immigrant, 14 years of age, I immigrated to this wonderful city of Washington D.C. I came to Washington D.C. I used to look at war movies in Trinidad and Tobago, never really saw any Black action figures or whatever.
So, how did it impact me? It impacted me via people such as this, and I’m going to tell a story here of a general that I met, but prior to me immigrating, I knew nothing, nothing, of racial discrimination, racism. The country I came from, we did not have it. I was not called the “N-word” until after I joined my beloved Marine Corps and I was deployed in Okinawa by a fellow marine. I was oblivious to those sorts of things. So, like I said, even though I was not born 75 years ago, [Laughter] it impacted my career, and I will talk about the story that would reflect my encounter with a legendary marine.
At that time, I did not know this legendary marine. So, I’m a young marine, aviation mechanic, I’m going to date myself here, working on F-4 Phantom airplanes, F-4 Phantom fighters, early 1974. I’m a lance corporal E-3 in the Marine Corps. I’m on the flight line at the Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, South Carolina. Here comes this F-4 Phantom from a Marine Corps Air Station in North Carolina called Cherry Point. The Phantom lands, taxis up to my squadron area, and I’m standing outside looking. I’m fairly new in the Marine Corps then, not even a year, and the canopy opened, and the person that steps out, I look, a tall, Black marine, had a rank of colonel. I had never, ever seen a Black pilot, much less a marine fighter pilot. I was in disbelief but I was also excited at the same time. I was about 18-years-old.
So, I immediately ran back into the hanger and there were a few African American marines there. There were only a few of us. We knew each other really well. [Laughter] I said, “Guys, you’ve got to come outside and see this. You’ve got to see this because you’re not going to believe me.” [Laughter] They came outside and we were all standing there with our jaws dropping down, and we looked at this guy. I didn’t know who this guy was from Adam and I sure wasn’t going to go up and ask him who he was. [Laughter]
Fast-forward many years later, I’m going through my Marine Corps career, I hear the Marine Corps has finally promoted its first Black General. Again, I did my research. I said, “Wow, that’s the guy that I saw back in 1974 on the flight line.” He was then Colonel Petersen. Now he’s Brigadier General Petersen. I never had any interaction with Gen. Petersen at all throughout my 34-year-career and his long career. Gen. Petersen went on to attain the rank of lieutenant general in the Marine Corps. Here is the story of how he affected me.
Lt. Gen. Petersen, again the first African-American aviator, he just happened to be a fighter pilot, flew numerous combat missions in Korea, numerous combat missions, and I think one-time he got shot and he said he was not going to crash in Korea. He got out of Korea. [Laughter] Numerous. Then he went on to also command a Marine fighter attack squadron in Vietnam. He was the Commanding Officer of Squadron 314 called “The Black Knights,” and I had the honor of serving in that squadron many years later and I could see on the history board he commanded that squadron. So, again, I never had any professional interaction with him.
I got out of the Marine Corps, got a little political after I got out, I feel I earned that right to be a politician, [Laughter] and I met the general in Denver, Colorado, backstage as President Obama was getting ready to get nominated as the Democratic Nominee. That’s where I finally met the general. I said, “General, you don’t know me from Adam, but I’m going to share this story of how you impacted my career decades earlier, three decades earlier.”
I will end by saying I had the honor and privilege of attending the ship christening and name for Lt. Gen. Frank E. Petersen Jr. in Charleston, South Carolina in 2022. That is my story. Thank you. [Applause]
Terrence A. Adams:
A wonderful story about how representation matters. My name is Terrence Adams. I started to come and not talk about myself today, because I don’t necessarily like doing it, and I will do some of that in the way of passing some time because I’ve got five minutes left. [Laughter]
First, Col. Eries Mentzer, you want to raise your hand? So, right here in this back corner, Eries Mentzer, she was just the commander, the Base Commander of Maxwell Airforce Base, she is the first person who really got me started on this kind of 75th journey about knowing what was going on and about 75 years was coming up. So, I just wanted to recognize her because she’s done a lot. I learn from her. She’s one of my mentors. She is a living example of what leadership is all about. So, a round of applause for Eries Mentzer. [Applause] She is just returning from Montgomery, Alabama where they had a similar kind of ceremony in recognition of the 75th anniversary as well.
I’d like to recognize Belinda Gergel, and she brought her side-kick, and maybe the Judge is the side-kick over there. [Laughter] I was the Joint Base Commander at Charleston Joint Base there. I had an opportunity to partner with the mayor and some other friends, and I went back to Charleston for a dinner. I’m hyped-up on the conversation that Eries and I had about the 75th, not knowing he wrote the book about it. [Laughter] So, I’m telling him about all these things I’m going to do. [Laughter] So, that funny story led to Dr. Will Rowe, who is not here. Will was here earlier. Pray for Will and his family, he’s at home now taking care of his family, but Will was the person that I’ve partnered with, and he began to help me start this kind of ad-hoc committee about the 75th. That’s where I met Allen.
So, I’m here because of a number of different things, and I just want to share with you how important connections are. Through that journey, we had an event at the Pentagon, that was just yesterday, Blue Stars Family just had an event, and all those individuals who has participated in this kind of ad-hoc group that we kind of started with no leadership. So, for all of those people, I just wanted to say a quick thanks. So, I took two minutes not talking about myself. [Laughter] I listened to the conversation earlier today, and the Judge, when I sat down and talked to him, he was like, “Your whole career is about this executive order.”
I was born in Tuskegee, Alabama. Many of you all may know the history of the Tuskegee Airmen, but I’m sure some of you all remember “Brick House.” The Commadores are form Tuskegee, Alabama, along with Rosa Parks being born there, Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver. The list continues. So, I grew up in this kind of foundation and I did not know until last year, I knew a group of brick yard here but never knew the red clay dirt before I was born formed the bricks that built Tuskegee Institute and Tuskegee University and just found it out from a historian kind of thing.
That led me to enlist in the army as a cook. I did that, so Master Chief will understand that journey of being a food service kind of person. I did two years on active duty at what’s now Fort Liberty. I was at the previous base at Fort Lee too. So, if you know these names and connections, I was at both of those bases when I was on active duty in the army. I did two years, got out, and got into an Army Reserve mass unit from the previous conversation, a big VA hospital right there in Tuskegee next to John Andrew Hospital, so you know the connection there, and my unit standing between Tuskegee University and John Andrew Hospital with the VA, and a lot of Black veterans were there. Again, these are all connections that I didn’t understand until my adult life, and as far as now becoming a general officer.
So, I had an opportunity to get activated for Desert Storm from that unit and went to Fort Benning, Georgia, which is now Fort Lee. These three bases that I was associated in the Army have all been renamed. So, I served there, returned from being activated from the reserves, I was already in college at Auburn University in Montgomery, and then I went to Alabama State. You heard Dr. Jefferson earlier talk about Alabama State and its connection, and I’m the first general officer to be promoted from that ROTC detachment there in Alabama State.
I just wanted to share a few things and I want to end with some thank-yous, and I will do that probably in question-and-answer, but it’s only recently in my life that I’m understanding the connections of my journey. I’m now a Cyber Officer in the United States Air Force. I just left the job of being the Director of Cyber Operations and Warfighter Communications at the Pentagon for the Air Force, and then moving on to be the Principal Cyber Adviser to the Secretary of Defense.
So, these opportunities that have happened because of the Executive Order, I wanted to just give you a glimpse of my life. I used the GI Bill to go to college because I didn’t want my mom to have to work two and three jobs. So, those two years helped to fund college for me, and it was all because of things that took place, and as a young, runny nose kind of kid, did not know, did not appreciate. So, the thanks that I would get into is for all those people who paid that price for me. All those individuals who paid the debt, so that I could have this freedom to serve, and that price was paid heavily by members.
If you know the Buffalo Soldiers, if you heard of the Harlem Hell Fighters, if you heard of the Tuskegee Airmen, which is from my hometown, and then also the 6888 Postal Battalion, these men and women who raised their hands “to support and defend the constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic,” to “bear true faith and allegiance to the same,” that took an “obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion,” and “well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office” that they entered, I want to say thank you to them, thank you for the Truman Institute, sir, and thank you for your grandfather. [Applause]
Well, thank you all. That was very moving. My grandfather served in a segregated army during World War II. My father, who is here now, is a retired commander of the United States Navy, and two of my uncles, one is a retired major Army ranger, and the other is a retired colonel and surgeon for the Army. So –
What is with the Army? [Laughter]
Terrence A. Adams:
No love? No love? Come on. [Laughter] Where is the love for the Air Force and the Navy? Come on now. Where’s the love? [Laughter]
We’re just like, “Be all you can be.” [Laughter]
So, I truly appreciate hearing your stories. What I’m interested in hearing from each of you, and first, I’m going to interrupt myself and just give kudos to the Truman Institute in that we have [Laughter] not just the Army but we have the four branches here, and I think that is good planning, it shows intelligence about our Armed Forces, and I just wanted to give a hat to that.
I represent the Space Force too. I deserve some love over here. [Laughter][Side Conversation]
Okay. [Laughter] Yes sir, yes sir. I’m interested in hearing, we’ve heard each of you talk a bit about your decision to join the Armed Forces, join government service, but can you talk about when and what influenced your decision to make a career of it? Because you all are distinguished leaders in the Armed Forces and it’s a different thing from entering, then one has to excel, and then one has to make the decision to make a career out of it. So, I’m interested in hearing about that. Ma’am?
So, I think sometimes it’s hard to think about society around the Armed Forces, and people will talk about the challenges in the Armed Forces, but that makes us forget there were challenges for women and people of color in our society when you’re talking from World War II to the modern day. When I started in the Navy, women were probably making $0.48 on the dollar compared to men.
So, I had served on my first and second ship, and I completed my obligation, and I was thinking about leaving, and I thought, “This needs to be an intelligent decision.” So, I used my circle of friends, and I’m not Florida but I was stationed in Florida at the time, Pensacola, and said, “I would like to find and talk to African Americans who are in professional jobs; engineering, etcetera.” So, I did. I found three people and I took them to lunch when the ship was in port.
The first was an architect in Pensacola. We talked about our lives, what was going on. He said, “Stay in. You have more opportunity than I do at this firm.” The second was a researcher, a technical graduate from Georgia University hired by Kodak. She was hired to be a researcher, an African American woman and a professional engineer, and had never been allowed in any of the engineering aspects of Kodak. She was an administrator. She says, “Michelle, I get paid well.” This is 1985 and she was making probably $70,000.00 a year back then. She goes, “But I’m window dressing.”
The third person was an administrator in a local school, and he was astonished to find out I got paid the same as my male counterparts because the military requires that, government requires that, but for most of us, in those timeframes, if you were a woman or a person of color, you should expect sadly that you weren’t going to get paid upon hiring, or even after years of excellent work, the same as someone who walked through the door who happened to be a White male.
What really surprised me is they, all three of them across these different communities, thought I had more opportunity to advance in the military than they did in any of their lives as professionals, and I thought maybe I need to think about why I want to stay in. Then I realized not only I liked being at sea, I liked the work, but it was the sailors. The leadership opportunity, but it’s what the sailors can do. I’ve often said it, “There’s nothing like a tough mission and watching the sailors and marines come up with a miracle plan and then make it happen,” and who would want to give that up to be a librarian? [Laughter]
So, I stayed in, and then after that, I went into command, and I eventually got to command, but really it was surprising. It was the lack of opportunity in our civilian society that was a big factor in me deciding to stay in the Navy.
Thank you. Well, for me, it was all about choices. Back in 1960, the choices for an African American graduating from college were very limited. I didn’t want to be a teacher in a Black school and the army offered an avenue of adventure with some rank and prestige, but the real reason, when I got married and had a son, then I had to figure out where can I go to get better support and service than what I already have? So, 10 years turned to 15, 15 to 20, 20 to 25, 30 years, eight months, 17 later, [Laughter] I am a happy man. I’m good to go, yes. [Laughter]
John L. Estrada:
So, what influenced me to make it a career? The first thing I mentioned earlier was as a young kid, I’m watching American war movies in Trinidad and Tobago. The movie that stood out, “Sands of Iwo Jima,” John Wayne. So, I knew back then that I wanted to be a marine. I get to Washington, D.C., it took me a little while to build the courage up to join the Marine Corps.
There were two impacting events I would say. My first assignment when I saw the general, Gen. Petersen, I didn’t know who he was at that time, but I had a boss back then. He came from the era of 9981, a Caucasian marine. He was my NCOIC (noncommission officer-in-charge), and for some reason, I mean he had seen it all, the good, the bad, and the ugly, he had almost 20 years in the Marine Corps at that time, this was back in ’74, and he said to me, “You know, Estrada, you look like you’re going to make a pretty good marine.” They were having problems with drugs and stuff back then. He said, “I’m going to recommend that we assign you oversees to Japan so you could get away from this stuff that’s going on back here right now.” Gunnery Sgt. Adams, I remember him today. The guy had like eight daughters. He was still trying to have a son. [Laughter] I will always remember him. God rest his soul. He had glasses. He sent me overseas for 13 months. That was the first impact.
The one that really did it, around 10 years in the Marine Corps, I am thinking, “All right, I did my time. It’s time that I get out.” There was not really too much happening, the Marine Corps seemed like it was just kind of floundering around, and we got this new commandant, a new commandant of the Marine Corps, the 29th, Gen. Alfred Gray, who used to be a former enlisted. He was a sergeant, got out, used this GI Bill or whatever. Many years later, he is now the Commandant of the Marine Corps. Rough, tough, tobacco chewing/spitting, [Laughter] just did not do the norm. He wore his camouflage uniform to events when the other chiefs of the services wore their dress uniform, and this guy was taking us back, the Marine Corps, back to basic warrior training, and like I said, I was in the crux of getting out. So, I said, “You know what, I’m going to stick around and see where this guy is going to take the Marine Corps.” That was the decision, the most important decision right there. This one commandant, didn’t know me from Adam, influenced me to stick around, and that is why I stayed in.
Fast forward, I am now becoming sergeant major of the Marine Corps, the 15th sergeant major in the history of the Marine Corps. Every former commandant and sergeant major of the Marine Corps attends this ceremony. Here’s Gen. Gray, he’s retired now. Again, I just knew him as commandant. I was way down here, he was way up there, [Laughter] and just before I officially took over, I went over to Gen. Gray, I said, “Commandant,” I said, “You only know me because of this ceremony that’s getting ready to happen here. I’m here to be our Corps 15th sergeant major.” I said, “I want to thank you. I am standing here this evening getting ready to take the post as the 15th sergeant major of the Marine Corps because of your leadership back then. That is what influenced me to stay in.”
Terrence A. Adams:
About me, so I am at 36 years of service now and I continue to serve because of representation, which you talked about earlier. I find myself now at this stage of the career as really thinking deeply about the journey. I’m the first general officer from Tuskegee, Alabama on active duty. Russell Davis was a three-star in-charge of the National Guard Bureau and the Reserves and the Guard. I’ll again mention I’m also the first general officer promoted from my ROTC detachment.
There are probably more people who want more for me than I want for myself at this point, and they are urging me and wanting me to continue to serve. So, I do continue to serve for the representation. I know it’s important. I know in some cases people can’t be what they can’t see. So, I want to be visible to do that. I also continue to serve for opportunity. Not opportunity now for myself but the opportunity I can provide others. I get to sit in a lot of meetings and be in a lot of positions where I can now make decisions to help others.
I’ll also say not everybody is kind of built for the work that we need to do in the future, and I think from my background growing up in Tuskegee, I was probably born with some DNA structures that many are not just because of where I’m from and probably how I grew up, what I saw. So, my leadership tenants now are “listen, lift, and love,” and so I get to come to conferences like this and listen to the two panels earlier today, I get to lift people up by pouring into them because of what people have poured into me, and I think what we need, as we move forward in our nation, is more conversation about love and how it would factor into what we need to do to move forward.
So, the final thing, I continue to serve because of that “lift” part of “listen, lift, love” is that somebody lifted me up, Gen. Ronnie Hawkins or Gen. Adam Zinder, who kind of poured into me, showed me things, taught me things that I was not aware of, and I continue to want to do that for other people. I mentioned some of those folks like Will Rowe who kind of poured in and just meeting somebody.
So, after George Floyd, I started this group with some people called “Crucial Convo.” I met Will through those endeavors from a lady named Sandy out in California, and just seeing Will and what Will was doing, I was inspired to do more. It’s almost like when you’re running a race and see some competition. You see others out there representing and doing things. So, that inspiration has come from other people who are connected to me, and those individuals really inspire me and inspire me to continue to serve.
We talked to Dr. Rowe and we talked about opportunities, we talked about in some cases how optimistic are you, and this is what I get, that question often. So, I get the, “Do you think this glass is half full or this glass if half empty?” and I say, “I’m just happy to have a glass.” [Laughter] Because there are ways to look at life that you don’t have to accept the two choices that people give you. You can create your own choices. You can create your own path.
So, as we look at the path moving forward, I would say that path that has a wider windshield of opportunity, I would say as I’m listening to the forums and the historians today, I would say that opportunity where history will serve always as a glimpse of the things that we don’t want to do and some of the things that we can do, that is in our rear-view mirror, that is in our rear mirror. The windshield of opportunity is wide, is bright, and I want to be the person that kind of represent that for the nation and represent that for those who want to follow behind me. Those are the reasons why I continue to serve.
Thank you, sir. I want to build on something that you mentioned, Gen. Adams, is feeling that need to be present, because I know that I have felt that in my professional life, in my academic life. It sometimes can feel like a bit of a burden, and I’m interested to know particularly, given how high each of you have risen through the ranks, how you dealt with that, particularly now that the military, at long last, is focusing a bit more on emotional health, and mental health, and things like that, but at the time when you were coming up in the ranks that was not as much of a focus, at least not publicly so.
So, a bit of a personal question kind of but I’m interested to hear how you dealt with that, and worked through it, and got to where you ended up.
So, after Desert Storm, I was one of the few women who actually served in Desert Storm and I was chief engineer on the ammunition ship and logistics ships had just opened up to women, so by Navy calculations, out of the probably hundreds of thousands of sailors in the six carriers we had over there, maybe 2,000 women officer and enlisted had wartime experience at sea because of Desert Storm and I was one of them.
So, congress decides to look at, “Okay, maybe it’s time to repeal the Combat Exclusion Law because we had women prisoners of war and women die in Desert Storm.” Sadly, I’m not sure how they missed that we had women prisoners of war and women die in World War II but okay. They create a commission, they’re going to debate this, because I was one of the few women with sea experience, and an officer, and on a short tour, I was made the spokesperson for the Navy for this issue on top of my regular job.
It was quite a burden and I would complain all the time, and I finally talked to my mother one day on the phone about having twice as much work as any of my colleagues and she said, “Well, that’s just kind of where you are, and if you don’t accept it, you should quit.” She said, “If you stay with the Navy, no one’s going to keep up with you because you’re so far ahead. So, this is going to be your life,” and she was right, the additional burden of duties, representational duties, and I was mad as a junior officer. They’d say, “Okay. We’re having an official visit from Russia, so we want to have some women officers out there,” and I go, “This is coming down to broad duty. That’s the only reason I’m being selected. Really? [Laughter] Sir?” [Laughter] So, by the time I’m selected as a one-star, I am kind of at my fill.
When you make one-star, the navy has this wonderful program. You do your Leadership 360, you go, and then at the end of a week of leadership, reinforcement of fundamentals, you get a coach, a civilian coach hired by the navy, to go over your scores and have a conversation with you. My coach that the Navy selected was an African American woman psychologist. I thought, “Oh my gosh, she’s going to be able to give me insights, how do you manage all of this, how do you live with this burden.”
So, we get together that Saturday, we go over my scores, and I am like, “It is so much. It’s hard to be motivated. How do I do it? What do I do? By the way, I’m so glad you’re my coach for this,” and she goes, “Oh, admiral. That is so easy. Come in, lean in, lean in,” and I went, “Okay.” “The secret,” I’m getting ready to write it down [Laughter] and she goes, “Fake it until you make it.” [Laughter] How much is the Navy paying you? [Laughter]
Then I realized she has perfect understanding of the human condition. Her message delivery may have been rough because I was a sailor, but if you think about Maya Angelou, she said, “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.” I needed to change my attitude. No one was going to motivate me. I have to motivate myself. [Applause]
If the question was being sympathetic to the human condition because of trauma, I would have to reflect back on being an infantry officer and the two tours that I had in Vietnam. I was with an infantry battalion the first tour and saw enough combat action to lose some people. So, when I got back to the States, I was having trouble sleeping at night, I didn’t want to watch TV because I didn’t want to be reminded of the news that they flashed about helicopter gunships being shot at and artillery. So, I just gutted it out and went through it.
Well, about 10 years after I retired, a friend of mine says, “You need to go get checked out for the syndrome.” I said, “What syndrome?” “Well, you were in combat. Maybe you’ve got some issues.” So, I go and I talk to the lady, and she says, “Why didn’t you come in earlier?” I said, “Because I wanted to stay in the military.” If I had come in as a major, then a stigma would have been attached and I would not have been able to continue.
Now, fast-forward, in this day and time, I am very sensitive to individuals who are harmed in that way and in other physical ways, and the conundrum is, the reality is, war is that kind of thing, and in order to get through it, you have to have tough-minded people who will push through, not think about what could happen, and I’m just thankful that the VA and other medical practitioners now are more able and capable of taking care of the wounded, both psychologically and physically, but it’s a tough business, you’ve got to have tough people, and you have to have people who know how to care for folks that we’re talking about.
Yes, sir. [Applause]
John L. Estrada:
So, you bring up a topic that gets me a little emotional when I talk about it. As the general just said, it’s a tough business, and I don’t want to call it a burden. When I became the 15th sergeant major of the United States Marine Corps, I was actually selected for that position while deployed to war. I was a sergeant major for the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing. So, one day I went from having to care about 17,500 marines to 250,000 plus marines.
Terrence A. Adams:
John L. Estrada:
Being that I was selected from the combat zone, I knew what the marines wanted, and I made it my job, I think my first year in assignment here at the Pentagon, I was gone 257 days or so out of the year getting in front of my marines, across the country and overseas. I wanted to do that because I had an affinity with them. I was on the battlefield.
I will call it a load, I don’t want to call it a burden, because I’m standing there and I’m speaking to them, I’m looking at them with their bright eyes and everything, male, females, they’re getting ready to go off to war and I’m here motivating them, “You need to go do this. Don’t let the marines down that went before you. That’s the marine thing to do,” and at the same time, I am struggling inside because I knew, from the position I served then in the Marine Corps, we really did not need to go to war.
That is the one reason why I got political after I left the Marine Corps. I went and supported a president who said he was going to end the war. Well, that didn’t happen but that was the motivation that forced me to go and support him because I had seen so many of my marines damaged on the battlefield, coming back home in body bags, but yet I had to keep that pace up and get back in front of them, wherever they may be, as they’re getting ready to deploy, and one of the things I wanted to do as a leadership, I wanted to get in front of them and look them in the eye, knowing very well that some of them were not coming back home or they would come back home broken.
I carried that around, no one would ever know that I felt badly about the war, but I had to do this so they looked at me with strength, and I’m doing everything else behind the scene hoping the war would end, but that wasn’t my business. So, I don’t want to call it a burden but I will say that I agonized about that every time I had to stand in front of those marines. Finally, many years after leaving the Marine Corps, I finally went, and sat down, and spoke to someone about how I felt at that time. I couldn’t do it before. It took a lot of time.
So, I said I get a little emotional talking about that one area right now. I had to hold that in and tell my marines, “It’s okay. You’re doing the right thing,” when I knew we should not have been doing it in the first place. That’s my piece. [Applause]
Terrence A. Adams:
So, for me, not burden; opportunity. It’s the same thing with that glass that’s sitting over there, right, half full, half empty. It’s about an opportunity. One, an opportunity because if you have been there’s not been a person in that position before you, now you can begin to bring some new thinking to positions because of your background. So, those things present opportunities to share who we are and the reason why I am who I am. Then now, your airmen or your soldiers, they get to benefit from your background because they may not have had a leader in there before.
After George Floyd, I had to do some internal thought process. I was getting a lot of phone calls, and this was the reason why Crucial Convos started, people asking me how do they respond. I was just coming out of being a joint base commander. All my other wing commander friends, they were not prepared to answer that question about what to do about what they saw. So, I said to myself, “Maybe if I had talked more about my journey, they would have known more, or shared more, or been able to respond.” So, those things aren’t necessarily burdens but there is a risk, right? I’d never want to talk about in some ways how I grew up. You may get ostracized in some ways when you do that. You don’t know. Impostor syndrome could be kicking in. You just don’t know.
So, now I’m encouraging leaders to just lead boldly, and that’s what Eries Mentzer did. She led boldly when she was at Maxwell Airforce Base. There will always be people who are going to take potshots at you for doing it, but you have to be confident internally to know what you want to do, you have to know that you’re trying to make a difference and do it for good, and then for those folks who is why in some ways I exist is to encourage them. To ensure that they know that there is a community that will surround them, that community will show them love, that community will listen to them, lift them up, and show them love.
So, when there is opportunity that presents, I think it’s time for us to kick down the door. There will be other incidents in our great nation that we’re going to have to respond to, and we all need to be ready. So, I have this flag here. Again, there were a bunch of things that came out. Different cities started doing events. So, if Alex is here, he came in on our phone calls. This comes from I think one in Florida. So, different organizations around. We had maybe a hundred different organizations represented in this kind of ad hoc committee, and these were some extras left, so I have some down here.
Now, I had another one that had something about the executive order, but when I just looked at this, this is not the same one I gave to Dr. Thomas if she’s around. This is one that says what the three things were that we wrote, to celebrate this 9981; to educate, because education I believe is one of the keys to success (when people don’t know what they don’t know, we have to educate them); and unite. I think the unification, the uniting around this topic in America is an opportunity.
That’s why I was trying to use this 75th anniversary to do is to celebrate it, so people would kind of know what took place 75 years ago. I think the nation needs to know this, and to be educated about this history. You can hear, from the panels before and then last night, why we all should be educated, like what this one decision did, how there is connecting the dots throughout our democracy, and then to unite the nation around it.
There are so many I would say opportunities for negativity for us to talk about. I think the men and women who see through this compassionately and cause love, we should not whisper love. We should begin to shout love. We should begin to, all the negativity, throw in love into the conversations around your office about negativity. We need to do better in our nation, and I think it starts with men and women like you having the kind of conversation that we’re having today. Thank you.
Thank you. [Applause]
I think we need to go ahead and do, in the interest of time, and we promised everyone we’d be done by 3:15. So, I wanted to ask, somebody wanted to ask a question about do you think it made a difference that Truman himself had military experience, that that made the difference as opposed to say someone like Roosevelt who certainly felt pressure during the war to move forward on eliminating discrimination? Do you think Truman’s own background as a soldier tipped the scales?
I’ll take it. I wrote in one of my books that I absolutely believe that that made a difference that he actually had served in war and served in infantry, which then gets back to World War II. He had an affinity and an affection for the soldiers in combat and I think it absolutely made a difference.
President Roosevelt was one of our greatest presidents and was Assistant Secretary of the Navy but he did have a very different lived experience. By the same measure but differently, Doris Kearns Goodwin has written several times about how President Roosevelt, he was a different person after he had polio and how that changed him, so suddenly he had more affection for people, more understanding. So, just like we bring all of our experiences to bear in our personal lives and professional lives, that absolutely was the case with President Truman.
Anybody else want to comment on that? Yes?
Yes. I think President Truman was very much driven by the leadership required to get men ready for battle because in World War I, he really went to extraordinary lengths to qualify to become an officer because he had bad eyesight, but he was able to whip his people into shape because he was a disciplinarian, and I think that served him very well when he gave the order as president that “We are going to desegregate,” and all of his generals, and many of them had achieved a five-star rank, said, “Ugh,” he says, “Yes, and you’re going to lead the charge.” So, I think that kind of training background, respect for another person’s energy to be pulled together for a common good, is what President Truman had.
One thing I want to end with while I’m talking about that is I think the greatest lesson that I get from President Truman is how willing are you to use your influence, in the position that you enjoy, for the good of others? That has been the one component of leadership that I think made the difference between the desegregation dropping dead and going no place is he was willing to put it all on the line because he knew it was right and he was determined that so long as he was president, that no matter the race of the generals, the friends who say, “Don’t do this, Mr. President,” he knew it was right.
So, President Truman has changed my life, and he’s changed my life from the standpoint that we are all in this life, and we are all given choices by God our creator, and you can choose who to follow, what to believe, and how to go about it, and if you have the courage of your convictions to do what you think is right, and especially if you have a platform, a position, authority, then you can change the world, as President Truman has done.
Yes, sir. [Applause]
That’s our time, so I think on behalf of the board of directors of the Truman Library Institute, I’d like to thank our moderator and our distinguished panel for sharing their life experiences and their thoughts with us today. [Applause]
Thank you, admiral. [Laughter] You were awesome.
[Laughter] Thank you.
Thank you. Are we through? [Laughter]
Yes, but they want us to – there’s –
– End of Recording –