When Tom Johnson joined the Virginia Army National Guard, he expected it would be for good.
The Army officer, an experienced Ranger twice awarded the Bronze Star for his service in Vietnam, planned to spend the rest of his career with the Virginia Guard when he transferred from the Maryland Guard in 1985 to take an infantry command at Fort A.P. Hill near Fredericksburg. But after two years, convinced that opportunities for blacks to advance in the Virginia Guard were limited, he returned to Maryland. In 1993, Johnson became the first black general in the history of the Maryland Guard.
Johnson, now director of the Selective Service System for the state of Maryland, said he never would have made general had he stayed in the Virginia National Guard. "Not in that organization," he said.
"What I saw was a group of individuals in authority who didn't accept change," Johnson added. "It was an experience that took me to the Old South to a degree."
To this day, few minorities have reached higher levels of seniority in the Virginia National Guard, and no black member has made general. Although minorities make up one-third of the approximately 7,700 members of the Virginia Army National Guard, they make up only one in 10 of the officers. All the generals are white, as are 31 of the 33 colonels. In the Virginia Air National Guard, the eight top-ranking officers are white men.
"I'm not sure we'd call it a problem," Maj. Gen. Claude Williams, the adjutant general of Virginia, said in an interview. "We realized a long time ago . . . [that] there are things that need to be straightened out. We're very committed to equal opportunity in the Virginia National Guard, no ands, ifs or buts about it."
But a Virginia Army National Guard equal opportunity report completed in December said, "The officer ranks appear to have a . . . serious problem when it comes to achieving parity, and it is evident that special attention is needed in this area."
The language is identical to that of the last report, in 1996.
Similarly, Virginia Guard officials were pledging in the 1980s that they took equal opportunity seriously.
"You could look around and see the organization was not committed," Johnson said. "They can say a hundred things, but if they don't walk the talk, it's not worth much. I can honestly say I don't think they were committed to it."
The National Guard has a dual role, providing community support and emergency assistance to states and also serving as part of the nation's military force. The Army National Guard now makes up more than half the Army's ground combat force. Its ranks are drawn from many corners of society: former active-duty soldiers who want to maintain military ties and pay, students seeking education benefits, weekend warriors looking for adventure and citizens simply interested in serving their country.
Nationwide, 85 percent of Army National Guard officers are white, including 87 percent of the generals. By comparison, about 74 percent of the Army National Guard as a whole nationwide is white.
"There is still a glass ceiling" within the National Guard, said Jack Broderick, director of equal employment opportunity for the Department of Defense's National Guard Bureau. "We do have minorities concentrated more in lower ranks than higher ranks."
In Maryland, minorities make up 39 percent of the Maryland Army National Guard and 17 percent of the officer corps. Minorities at higher ranks include one of three brigadier generals, 19 percent of colonels and 17 percent of sergeant majors. In the Maryland Air National Guard, all 13 generals and colonels are white men.
National Guard policy is that the racial makeup of each state's Guard should reflect the population of that state. That means that Virginia claims parity when minorities represent 21 percent of a given rank, even though minorities make up 34 percent of the Virginia Army Guard.
An independent investigator assigned to examine one of several discrimination claims filed against the Virginia Army National Guard ruled against the complainant, but he filed a report in 1999 sharply critical of the state of racial equality in the Virginia militia.
"For the last ten years, the [Virginia Army National Guard] has made very little progress, if any, in achieving parity for the African-Americans in the officer and senior NCO ranks," said the report from James W. Baldwin, a District-based investigator.
Some officers and soldiers in the Virginia Guard say the numbers reflect a system in which an old-boy network has stifled the advancement of blacks through the ranks.
"It's more or less the fox guarding the chicken coop," said Sgt. 1st Class Chester Dixon, one of several soldiers who have filed discrimination complaints against the Virginia Guard.
Sen. Charles S. Robb (D-Va.) sent a letter to the Army and National Guard in September asking about the cases, saying he is "very concerned about the status of the specific cases . . . but I am more concerned about whether discrimination complaints are being handled efficiently and fairly."
The 1999 Virginia equal opportunity report predicts that "minorities will attain parity in all of the enlisted ranks within the next few years." Again, the exact same wording appeared in the last report, in 1996. (The National Guard Bureau requires states to submit equal opportunity reports annually, but the Virginia Army Guard failed to do so in 1997 and 1998.)
Virginia Guard officials can point to some significant gains in racial parity in recent years, particularly in the enlisted ranks. Although 90 percent of sergeant majors, the top enlisted rank, are white, the number of minorities at the E-8 level, the second-highest enlisted rank, has increased by 36 percent in three years.
The 1999 equal opportunity report issued by the Virginia Guard does not include data on the cadre of 414 full-time guardsmen in the force. But internal documents obtained by The Washington Post show that blacks are virtually absent at the higher ranks. There are none among the generals, colonels and lieutenant colonels, and only one ranked higher than captain. Out of 27 full-time majors, only one is African American, and only two of 15 captains are black. None of the eight full-time sergeant majors is black.
The full-time force is particularly critical because it includes many officers and senior enlisted personnel who sit on promotion boards and make important decisions affecting the careers of part-time, or "traditional," guardsmen.
"That's the telling story," Johnson said. "They're the ones who can make or break a traditional guardsman."
Williams said the Virginia Guard needs time to make changes. "You can't start an officer as a general. You have to grow them from lieutenants," he said. "We can't change it overnight."
But the Virginia Guard has had promising young black officers in its ranks who, like Johnson, "fled north," as one Guard official put it.
Joseph A. Goode Jr., a native of Petersburg, Va., served with the Army in Vietnam and then joined the Virginia National Guard in 1973 as an officer in an aviation unit. But in 1989, believing his opportunities for further advancement were narrowing in part because of his race, he transferred to the Maryland Guard.
"It's rather obvious that the Virginia Guard is run by a close-knit society that doesn't reflect the population of the Guard," Goode said.
In Maryland, Goode said, "I didn't sense a color barrier at all." He was promoted in August to brigadier general, becoming the second black member to reach the rank in Maryland.
"Maryland was active in seeking minorities, and if they performed well, they had an opportunity for advancement," Johnson said.
Integration came late to the Virginia National Guard. After an all-black regiment was disbanded in 1899, there were no African Americans in the Virginia Guard until the first black soldier joined in 1965. Only a handful more joined over the next 10 years.
"We did not get sizable numbers until the mid-1970s, and frankly that only came after pressure from the federal government," said John Listman, historian for the Virginia Guard.
Virginia Army National Guard officials could not identify a single member of a minority group who has served on the primary staff of the adjutant general going back to the militia's founding in 1637, according to legal papers filed in a 1999 discrimination case.
The Virginia Guard is making progress, but its efforts at promoting equal opportunity are hampered by a lack of funding for equal opportunity staff and training materials, said Lt. Col. Wendell Braxton, the state's equal opportunity officer. "We simply don't have sufficient manpower," he said.
Nationally, Guard officials say, the most qualified and experienced officers and soldiers are the ones who reach the higher ranks. But in some states, minorities are not always given the opportunity to get the qualifications and experience.
"Some states have done quite well; others have done less well," Broderick said. "Much of that is a function of long-term leadership. There are decisions on what kind of assignments they make, one with opportunity for promotion versus an assignment like supply officer or motor pool, where the opportunity to develop is limited."
For the current Virginia leaders to change the situation, Johnson said, "there needs to be an active effort to diversify the full-time force. . . . You need to identify people with promise, work with them and provide them with opportunities."
Promotions are based on a point system, but critics say that because some ratings are subjective, the system has been manipulated in Virginia to support favored candidates. "In the Virginia National Guard, there is a written system and an unspoken policy," said Capt. John Wilt, an officer with the Virginia Army Guard.
Baldwin's report said there are cases in the Virginia Army Guard in which white soldiers were promoted over black soldiers competing for the same position who had more points. But there were no cases where black soldiers had been promoted over white soldiers who had more points, according to Baldwin.
One of several contentious discrimination investigations involving the Virginia Guard concerns allegations of racism within a special forces company based at Fort A.P. Hill in Bowling Green. An initial investigation in 1997 found that Master Sgt. Jessie B. Wray, an NCO in the unit, used "disparaging racial epithets directed against blacks on more than one occasion and has consistently tolerated the use of such language." Wray declined to comment.
The investigation concluded that the soldier who filed the complaint, Master Sgt. Kenneth A. Vance, "has been the object of racism, but not of discrimination due to race." The Virginia Guard rejected the findings of the investigation as flawed.
Wray was subsequently promoted to sergeant major, the highest enlisted rank. Vance was not promoted.
"If a guy like Vance can't be promoted, nobody has a chance," Wilt said.
In his civilian job, Vance was an assistant corporation counsel for the District, where he handled high-profile cases. As a Green Beret, he deployed to northern Iraq and flew search-and-rescue missions.
Vance ranked at the top of the Virginia Guard's promotion list in his category in 1995, documents show. He applied to enroll in the Sergeant Major Academy three times, but each time was told by Virginia Guard officials that his application had been lost, according to his complaint. When the promotion list came out the next year, Wray had a higher rank than Vance.
"The promotion system is being manipulated to place selected individuals in Sergeant Major positions, regardless of their professionalism and/or qualifications," Vance wrote in his complaint. " . . . A concerted effort has been made to place black NCO's below the line, thus effectively preventing them from . . . obtaining promotion to Sergeant Major in the Virginia National Guard."
Wilt, who is white and who commanded a special forces team in the company, said he was warned by superiors against supporting Vance's complaint, but he did so anyway. "Since that time, they've come after me hard," he said.
Vance also filed a statement in April 1997 saying that superiors told him they "would bring allegations . . . against myself and or CPT Wilt if I pursued this matter."
In June 1997, Vance collapsed during a running fitness test at Fort A.P. Hill and died of a heart attack. Three months later, after an investigation, then-Virginia Adjutant Gen. Carroll Thackston reprimanded Wilt as failing "to establish minimum safety precautions" for the physical fitness test.
Subsequent investigations by the Virginia National Guard charged that Wilt engaged in conduct unbecoming an officer, failed to properly oversee ammunition at a training range and used "insulting and defamatory language" to describe another officer.
Wilt became a "target" for investigation "because he had the courage to confront the racial problems in this unit," wrote Jerry Torres, then a member of the unit and a former Virginia Army National Guard NCO of the Year, in a letter to Rep. Thomas J. Bliley Jr. (R-Va.). But another soldier in the unit, Chief Warrant Officer James Herring, denied there were racial problems and said Wilt "used this as an excuse for things he got in trouble for."
In a letter responding to an inquiry from Bliley, Thackston acknowledged that the allegations against Wilt "may well have been motivated by Captain Wilt's participation in an EO inquiry." But he said that the Guard was obligated to look into the allegations and that the investigations "substantiated the allegations."
Few Minority Officers in Va.Guard
Although minorities make up one-third of the Approximately 7,700 members of the Virginia Army National Guard, they make up only one in 10 of the officers. A look at the role of minorities in the Virginia Army National Guard.
Virginia National Guard Profile
Total membership (currently assigned) 7,722
Officer strength 825
Enlisted strength 6,897
Minority officers 85
Minority enlisted 2,443
Diversity in the Virginia National Guard
Total strength 1979
Total strength 1999
Minority representation in officers ranks, 1999
Major general 0.0%
Brigadier general 0.0
Lieutenant colonel 10.5
First lieutenant 10.6
Second lieutenant 21.8
SOURCE: Virginia Army National Guard