Our lives are made up of moments, some more memorable than others. Yet some events cast such a deep imprint on us that they can't help but shape who we are. One such event occurred recently, when I had the honor of attending a special red-carpet screening of the movie Red Tails by George Lucas. Red Tails tells the harrowing story of the famed Tuskegee Airmen in World War II, pilots who fought a determined enemy in the air; and at the same time faced bigotry and discrimination head-on in America.
As an Air Force officer and pilot I shared a special kin to their experience: Their desire to serve, overcome challenges and deliver unrivaled Airpower for our nation. Needless to say, it was amazing to sit down with my fellow Airmen and watch the film, many of whom shared years of sweat, deployments and family separation along with me.
But the evening quickly transitioned from amazing to overwhelming when the real Tuskegee Airmen walked into the theater and sat down to watch the movie with us. The power of moments like these inspire us to no end and provide a living testament to all we can be when we lead with courage and fight for what is righteous and just. It was an honor to be with them, and share in all the emotions that come with such a moment. Yet the imprint created that evening pales in comparison to the impact the Red Tails have had on our Air Force, military and nation.
The Power of Conviction
I had the rare opportunity to meet a Tuskegee Airman once before while attending Air Command and Staff College in Alabama [the Air Force mid-level professional school]. In the course of our conversation, I asked a simple question, "How did you accomplish what you did, serve with such distinction, and blaze a trail amidst such incredible discrimination?"
His reply was firm and delivered with incredible conviction, "Simple... we woke up each day with a brash, almost arrogant approach to flying, sometimes bordering on defiance. We simply had no other choice but to fight for what was right."
The power of his answer was overwhelming. The Tuskegee Airmen were true innovators, both in the air and across America. Today, many believe [and rightly so] that the Red Tails served as a catalyst for the civil rights movement. In Air Force circles, it is a common saying that before we broke the sound barrier, the Tuskegee Airmen broke the "race barrier."
Defying the Laws of Gravity, and Fighting the Laws of Segregation
Today all Airmen revere the Tuskegee Airmen for their courage and tenacity while under fire, and embody that same spirit of service. As I watched the film and reflected upon my discussions from 2006, I concluded that an air of defiance [often considered a disruptive trait] somehow fits the persona of many Airmen that I've flown and served with. What some view as brash and uncontrolled, many Airmen consider deliberate and even essential -- a special purpose that in many ways serves as a catalyst for change. But where did this trait come from?
In fact, when it comes to Airmanship, the act of flight itself can be considered a type of controlled defiance -- an act of force against the unyielding weight of gravity. An act that the members of the U.S. Air Force share a long history of -- and one that continues to this day.
After World War I many questioned the utility of an air service and believed that Airmen should stand fast and obey the laws of gravity. Fighting the forces of doctrinal stagnation, General William "Billy" Mitchell and other early Airpower pioneers worked aggressively to establish a separate and distinct air service. In Mitchell's case, his quest for change and brash approach was ultimately received as an act of defiance and eventually cost him his career. He was court martialed in 1925; yet his act of defiance served as a catalyst for formation of the Air Corps Tactical School in Montgomery, Alabama.
Moving almost in parallel, America was also dealing with another more painful reality in Montgomery -- that of segregation between black and white America. It was only fitting that the seemingly insurmountable forces of gravity and segregation would eventually converge in the nearby town of Tuskegee.
In 1941, a group of courageous individuals gathered in Tuskegee, bent upon defying both the forces of gravity and discrimination. These men were called the Tuskegee Airmen, now known in America as "The Red Tails" for the brash colors they displayed on the aircraft they flew. Needless to say their heroic acts of defiance left an indelible mark, not only on Aviation but also on race relations in America. Among their many accomplishments from 1941 to 1945, they flew more than 15,000 sorties, destroyed or damaged more than 400 aircraft and earned 95 Distinguished Flying Crosses. However, the true impact of their struggle goes well beyond what they accomplished in the air, because they set a course for social innovation in America that impacts nearly every Airman serving today. In fact, they broke the "race barrier" nearly 15 years before Rosa Parks' heroic act of defiance on a bus.
Legacy of the Red Tails
Today, America's Air Force is reaping the benefits of the special brand of courage and social innovation born in Tuskegee. Diversity is now an undisputed strategic imperative in our Armed Forces -- key to mission success in an era where technology and human interaction thrive together on the battlefield. And, as an Airman, I see the spirit of the "Red Tails" every day I serve.
In 2008, I had the chance to fly into Afghanistan with a diverse C-17 crew, consisting of several religions, races and creeds. During our stopover in Europe, we had the chance to interact with local citizens. One citizen remarked that he found it hard to believe that we could function as a crew with so many cultural differences. Of course, my fellow Airmen replied almost in unison, "That is what makes America so strong!" A battle cry from Airmen whose slightly brash and defiant approach finds its origins in a small town in southern Alabama.
At the conclusion of the screening of Red Tails, with the credits rolling, we came to our feet with thunderous applause. But we did not face the screen. On that day, we turned and faced the real Red Tails standing among us, a fitting tribute to the icons that shaped the persona of every American Airman serving today.
For myself, it was a lasting imprint in time and an unforgettable moment. We closed the evening shoulder-to-shoulder; young and old, active and reserve, black and white, male and female, all together sharing a common bond and history -- brash and defiant by our birthright as a service. Great American Airmen first, yet none more important than the other, and always ready to meet America's next challenge on the cutting edge of innovation. We closed the emotional evening by sounding off together our eternal pledge: From the last plane to the last bullet, to the last minute, to the last man. We Fight!