Cheering for the real heroes

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Zach Anderson
  • 4th AF/PA
In downtown San Antonio, the air was thick with anticipation.

The throng of excited fans waited outside the hotel for most of the afternoon, hoping to catch a glimpse of a "hero." When one appeared, the crowd instantly came to life, cheering loudly as police officers worked to ensure fans kept proper distance. Cameras flashed, hands were shaken, and autographs were signed as the "heroes" exited their vehicles and made their way through the doors of the hotel. For fans of the Dallas Cowboys football team, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet members of "America's Team" as they returned from an afternoon training camp practice.

Throughout the day, another group of men made their way into the hotel; older men, their bodies stooped by age, some using canes, slowly shuffling "And so, with no fanfare and no ovation, a collection of original Tuskegee Airmen, the real "America's Team," passed quietly by, unheralded, uninterrupted and ultimately, unrecognized." down the sidewalk. This nondescript group quietly made its way through the hotel entrance without interruption. No crowd gathered to cheer for them; no police officers were needed to keep fans away. Those gathered outside the hotel entrance had no idea they had just been in the presence of some of America's true heroes.

And so, with no fanfare and no ovation, a collection of original Tuskegee Airmen, the real "America's Team," passed quietly by, unheralded, uninterrupted and ultimately, unrecognized.

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to attend the 39th Annual Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. convention in San Antonio. From a professional development standpoint, it served as an excellent opportunity to learn from presentations made by many senior Air Force leaders. From a personal standpoint, it gave me a firsthand education on one of the most incredible stories in U.S. military history ... and a real gut-check lesson on what it really means to persevere, to overcome adversity, and achieve true success.

Prior to this experience, I thought I had a healthy appreciation for the story and contributions of these legendary Airmen. Granted, my cursory knowledge of the Tuskegee Airmen was limited only to lectures absorbed during military education courses and programs I had seen on "The History Channel." Like most of us, I knew about the famous "red tails," the incredible record of protecting U.S. bombers from enemy aircraft while flying escort missions in World War II, and the fact that these Airmen were the first black military aviators in the United States armed forces.

However, facts learned in a classroom or from TV are one thing. My appreciation and respect reached a new level when the individuals responsible for those contributions transformed from faces in faded, black-and-white photographs into living history.

As fans outside the hotel cheered for "heroes" of the football field, Airmen like me received a tutorial in what real heroism is all about. My personal education in honor, courage and commitment came in the form of one-on-one interactions with men who I had previously known only from history books.

While the crowds outside the hotel hoped for a glimpse of Tony Romo or Roy Williams, I sat with retired Cpl. Roy Richardson, a member of the 100th Fighter Squadron, as he discussed overcoming racial prejudice and injustice, and of the great pride he still feels in his service to his country.

I listened as retired Lt. Col. Shelby Westbrook, a pilot with the 99th Fighter Squadron, told stories of fighting to earn the respect of his white counterparts and of the challenge he faced to prove the color of his skin had nothing to do with his prowess as a fighter pilot.

Retired 2nd Lt. Oliver Goodall, a pilot with the 477th Bomber Group, shared with me a firsthand account of the 1945 Freeman Field Mutiny, during which he and more than 100 other black officers were arrested for demanding equal treatment and the right to access the airfield officer's club.

Retired Master Sgt. Buford Johnson, a member of the 332nd Fighter Group and the military's first black jet mechanic, described to me the attitude of determination the Tuskegee Airmen had to succeed and prove themselves as equals, both as citizens as well as Airmen.

"We were fighting two wars at the same time, one against prejudice and one against the enemy," Sergeant Johnson said. "But we didn't complain. We had to stay the course. We could never let it be said of us that we could do better than we were. We had to do our best all of the time."

The words of these men spoke volumes to me. Like I said, I thought I appreciated and understood the story of the Tuskegee Airmen. But after listening to them, after seeing how the fire still burns their eyes, I realized I had no idea just what type of men these legends truly are. Their individual testimonies of resolve, prevailing despite the challenges and injustices, and fighting for the right to serve their country as equals were humbling, to say the least.

I also realized that as time passes, fewer and fewer will have the chance to meet the Tuskegee Airmen and hear their stories firsthand. I count myself incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to do so. With that opportunity comes the responsibility to continue to share that story, to ensure the legacy of these Airmen is never diminished and never forgotten.

As I exited the hotel on the final day of the convention, I found it ironic that so many were waiting outside to pay homage to a group of athletes while the real heroes passed by completely unnoticed. But then, the Tuskegee Airmen I met had never demanded any special treatment or recognition in the first place. They had simply requested the opportunity to prove themselves and the right to serve their country as equals. In doing so, they established a legacy of excellence that changed the course of history, and continues to this day.

That, in my opinion, is something that's really worth cheering for.