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Photo by Doug Mills of The New York Times / Cadets salute during a graduation ceremony at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., on May 30, 2019.

In the summer of 1972, I joined 150 other young men right out of high school at Lackland AFB, Texas. We completed basic training, then transferred for a year to the United States Air Force Academy Preparatory School in Colorado Springs, Colo. There were two types of prep schoolers at Lackland. Some were recruited academy athletes who needed to increase their academic test scores. Others, like me, had applied to the academy but weren't accepted initially.

When we arrived at the prep school, we discovered a third group. They were all minorities that the Department of Defense hoped would reflect more racial diversity at the academy. They had an abbreviated basic training, then began intense "pre-prep" academic courses to get their academic skills up to school standards.

My roommate was one of those young men. He was a good guy but had the most demerits in our squadron. He also struggled academically. Our squadron training instructor, Staff Sgt. Dooley, hammered him incessantly. I sensed the sergeant, who was Black, felt my roommate was somewhat of an embarrassment to himself and other Black cadet candidates. By Thanksgiving, my roommate was dismissed.

He did not deserve the frustration he experienced. He lacked the academic aptitude for either the prep school or the academy. Most of the "pre-prep" candidates experienced similar fates.

I made the football team and became friends with many of those young men. They were incredible athletes, but none of them graduated from the academy. The Air Force allowed their desire to recruit cadets (especially athletes) of a specific skin color to interfere with recruiting qualified candidates. Young men like my teammates paid for that mistake.

Fast forward 33 years. In 2005, the most successful football coach in Air Force Academy history, Fisher Deberry, was forced into retirement after 27 years. He told the Colorado Springs Gazette that the academy needed to recruit faster players, specifically noting, "you don't see many minority athletes in our program."

The repercussions for his lack of political correctness were fast and furious and led to DeBerry's" retirement decision" at the end of the season. Everyone knew DeBerry's comments were true. We also knew DeBerry didn't have a racist bone in his body. It didn't matter.

Fast forward 16 years. The lead TFP story on Dec. 4 by The Associated Press was headlined: "Racism in the Ranks: U.S. Military Academies Battling Racial Strife." The authors lamented the lack of racial representation at the academies and decried the blatant racism a few Black military academy graduates claimed. The article also pointed out there is less than desired representation of minorities in the senior military ranks.

I do not know how to ensure the number of Black cadets in military academies reflect the population at large. I do not know why more qualified Blacks do not apply for the academies. The Department of Defense has grappled with the problem for more than 50 years. It is a complicated social issue, but to simply broad-brush it as "racism" helps no one.

We have had a Black president and now have a Black vice-president. We have had Black four-star generals for decades. Both West Point and the Air Force Academy currently are led by Black superintendents. However, all that will never be enough to appease those who see our military academies as failed social experiments instead of military institutions tasked to recruit high caliber young men and women and prepare them to defend our nation.

I have sat on academy candidate selection committees for many years. Each state uses the same criteria. Every candidate, regardless of race, gender, religion, income or political connections, is treated the same and evaluated objectively on academic, leadership, extracurricular and athletic performance. To suggest otherwise is a lie, and is race-baiting, pure and simple. It contributes nothing to ensuring racial equality.

Roger Smith, a local author, is a frequent contributor to the Times Free Press.

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