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Share Your Story: My reflections on race, the military, and moving forward

JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. --

I couldn’t watch the video. Even repeating the details of George Floyd’s death is difficult to stomach. In the days that followed, I struggled with how to articulate my emotions. Numbness, pain and disbelief washed over me.

As a Reserve Citizen Airman living in Seattle, I watched thousands march against racial injustice. Peaceful demonstrations spiraled out of control. Then cities burned. Civil unrest erupted across the country as America was forced to reckon with its past and present.

Frankly, I was exhausted.

I longed to socially and emotionally distance myself from the chaos of the world. I packed my bags and headed to the one place I could quiet my soul: nature.

In May, I drove an hour to Mt. Rainier. The drizzle and fog misted over the evergreen trees. The silence was a reminder of how much I needed an escape. Then I cried and prayed.

I mourned for all the Americans who have died from COVID-19. I grieved for all the front-line workers struggling to save countless lives. I cried for America, that in this day, we are still dealing with racial injustice.

In the weeks and months that followed, I had passionate conversations about race. I received an outpouring of love and support from friends, military colleagues and strangers who pledged to stand with me.

But then I wondered what next? What change? How can we move forward as a nation?

I recently came across Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth O. Wright’s commentary, “Who Am I.” His impassioned plea, along with other top military leaders, gave me hope for a change within the ranks.

It also made me reflect on my experience as a black female Airman.

While I haven’t experienced the ugly, pervasive in-your-face racism in the Air Force, I know Airmen who have.

I have experienced it in the form insensitive jokes and microaggressions.

While deployed a technical sergeant joked about bringing in a noose to work to threaten Airmen who failed to turn in paperwork. I cautioned him not to. Not only would he put a stain on the Air Force, he could be charged with a hate crime. He never did.

As an active-duty airman first class, I was told by another junior Airman I would automatically receive Airman Below the Zone (BTZ) because I was a black female. He said, “It doesn’t matter if I’m the better candidate, the Air Force will pick you over me.” This infuriated me. He discounted the fact that not only did I graduate top of my class, I also completed my Air Force associate’s degree, volunteered countless hours in the community, and recently enrolled in a master’s program. 

I believe no Airman should experience racism or a feeling of isolation.

I challenge ALL Airmen - from airman to general - to look within and ask am I part of the problem or the solution. Am I a true embodiment of our Air Force core values? This means having those difficult and uncomfortable conversations about  race and otherness and encouraging a culture of diversity and inclusiveness.

As a staff sergeant, I also challenge front-line supervisors to examine their implicit and explicit biases - this includes me. Are you disciplining your Airmen fairly? Are you seeking to encourage or mentor Airmen who don’t look like you? Are you creating an environment where your Airmen feel like they are part of the team?

I have a mentor, a white company grade officer, who encouraged me to apply for Officer Training School. He said, “Mary, you are bright, driven and the Air Force needs more officers like you.” His words inspired me to strive for excellence not only in my professional, but personal life. We need more officers like him.

I wear this uniform proudly not as a black Airman, but as an Airman. I expect my brothers and sisters in arms to serve with me honorably regardless of the color of my skin.

Because We Never Leave an Airman Behind.