Retired Brigadier Gen. Leo A. Brooks Jr. was the featured speaker for a Black History Month ceremony Friday at the Library of Congress. In his address, "The Legacy of the Black American Soldier," Brooks paid tribute to the military's earliest black leaders, such as Henry O. Flipper, the first African American to graduate from West Point; Benjamin O. Davis Sr., the Army's first black general and Davis's son, Benjamin O. Davis Jr., who became a three-star general in the U.S. Air Force.
In this excerpt, Brooks shares some of his journey:
What an honor it is for me to represent the hundreds of thousands of African Americans that have worn the Army uniform, served their country with distinction and honor and paved the way for future Americans to have an opportunity to fulfill their own personal dreams. This occasion is even more gratifying for me because I am following my father as a speaker, just as I followed him in my choice of profession, by going to West Point and becoming an officer in the United States Army. He always told me to strive to be the best, be willing to sacrifice and work hard, to always look out for your people, take time to interact with everyone and to thank God for all you have been given.
I watched him apply those secrets for success over a 30-year career and stood proudly as a senior at West Point when he was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General. My brother and I strove to follow his advice, and my father and mother got to see both of us attain the rank of General Officer as well. So before all these people present I want to thank my father and mother for being a great friend, and a superb soldier . . .
In my own career, I joined the 75th Ranger Regiment in 1984 as the only black officer in the entire regiment at the time. I did not shy away from it because it appeared to be an all white organization. I sought it because the Rangers had the reputation of being the best infantry in the world, and I was an infantryman.
It was quite natural for me to seek such an assignment because of the way my parents raised me, seek to be the best. Don't be afraid to set the bar high. Work hard and your worth will become self-evident. While there, I was trained and mentored by officers and non-commissioned officers who looked at my potential, not my color.
You see, I found that soldiering is an affair of the heart, and when times are hard, and you need a hand, and one reaches out to lift you up, you don't first check what color it is. That is what I love about being a soldier. There is a bond of trust that comes from shared hardships, shared experiences, a common set of values and a common ethos.
It is why our Army is the best in the world. It is why I could serve as the Commandant of Cadets at the United States Military Academy in 2002, with the awesome responsibility of preparing the future leaders of our Army for the global war on terrorism, just 66 years from the time when Benjamin O. Davis Jr. sat in solitude and segregation from the rest of the academy at West Point.
All of the stories and these thousands of men and women who are represented in them have paved a way for the soldiers of today who so courageously represent all of us in Iraq and Afghanistan and other points around the globe.
I have to tell you, though, I get concerned when I see the denigration of our culture in rap videos filled with diamond studded teeth, foul language, gratuitous sex and money. I get concerned when people who are role models by their position refuse to step up and set a good example for those coming behind them. I get concerned when I see our culture worrying about whether being "articulate" is a cut down or not, instead of worrying about the root of why a comment like that even has to be made.
I am encouraged, however, when I look at the great Army that I served in for 27 years and its focus on honorable and faithful service. Opportunities that did not exist for Henry Flipper were made possible by his example and sacrifice for Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. Opportunities that did not exist for Benjamin O. Davis Jr. were made possible for another man here today, [Command Sergeant Major] (Retired) Curtis Womack, who received three purple hearts in two wars (World War II and Korea) fighting as an infantryman. CSM Womack's service and sacrifice and that of the men who served with him in World War II gave my father's generation opportunities. My own father's patriotism, honor, service to nation and dedication to duty from the post Korean War period through two tours in Vietnam and service in the 1970s and mid-80s contributed to opportunities for me, my brother, who is currently serving in Baghdad, Iraq, and my contemporaries.
I pray that the legacy that my generation leaves for the youth of today provides even more opportunities than those provided by the great service of the men and women who wore the uniform before us, and that's a tall order.