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Faithful to a proud heritage

KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, BILOXI, MISS. -- February is celebrated as African-American Heritage Month, and Keesler's highlight event for the observance was Tuesday's luncheon at the Dragon's Lair. 

I've been asked by junior Airmen why, in this time of war and very busy schedules, we pause to reflect on our heritage. Why do we celebrate our Asian-Pacific heritage, Hispanic heritage and African-American heritage? Why celebrate any heritage of any entity? When I'm asked, I pull my Airman's Creed card from my wallet and show them the photos on the front. The images of pioneer Airmen like Billy Mitchell, Eddie Rickenbacker, the Women's Air Force members, and the Tuskegee Airmen leap from the page. We celebrate because we are faithful to a proud heritage! 

As Airmen, it is important to know where we've been so we can properly chart our flight plan forward. 

Americans of African descent have played a hugely important role in shaping our nation and all Airmen celebrate their achievements. 

For example, a few years before the heroic Jackie Robinson blazed the trail of desegregation on the baseball diamond, the Tuskegee Airmen blazed the trail in the sky. Aviators, maintainers, and support personnel teamed to produce one of the most impressive operational performances of the second world war. Called "The Red-Tailed Devils" by their German foes, the Tuskegee Airmen never lost a bomber they escorted as they wreaked havoc on the Luftwaffe. Importantly, they shattered misconceptions, inspired an incalculable number of future generations, and gave hope for a better future. 

Great aviators like Gens. Benjamin Davis Jr. and Daniel "Chappie" James were among those who led the way for Airmen in the 1950s and 1960s. Davis, son of the U.S. Army's first African-American general, became the first Tuskegee Airman and the group's commander. After World War II, General Davis led Airmen in combat in Korea and served as a senior leader in our Air Force. Want to read a great book? I suggest you read his autobiography, "Benjamin O. Davis, Jr.: American." 

Ever swing by the 81st Training Wing headquarters? Wonder who Chappie James was? Did you know that at one point in his career, he was the deputy commander of operations of the 81st Tactical Fighter Wing? He was an 81st Dragon ... just like you! I encourage you to read about General James' career experience in the Vietnam war where, as a World War II and Korean era-veteran, he distinguished himself as a senior combat leader. Due to his great leadership ability, General James became the nation's first four-star African-American general and is an important part of our proud heritage. 

What about the 1970s and 1980s? I encourage you to read up on the career and exploits of now retired Col. Guion Bluford, the first African-American astronaut. I had the honor to meet Colonel Bluford while I was a cadet at Penn State, and I don't think I've met a more impressive man. An ROTC graduate of Penn State himself, Colonel Bluford is an Eagle Scout, a Vietnam combat pilot, and an outstanding engineer and scholar. He made four space flights and logged over 688 hours in space. After his retirement, he has enjoyed a successful business career punctuated by meaningful community service. As an Airman, I challenge you to find a better role model! 

How about the 1990s and current decade? You're surrounded every day by great examples of how African-American Airmen contribute to our Air Force and our nation. 

America draws its strength from its diversity and we have terrific examples in our leaders of African-American heritage throughout our civilian and military leadership. 

Now is a time to renew ourselves with the contributions of African-Americans to our nation and our Air Force's culture. We stand on the shoulders of giants who provided us a proud heritage rich with a legacy of valor and a tradition of honor. Please join me in celebrating African-American Heritage month!