By Sydney Johnson
Black Americans have been serving in the U.S. Armed Forces since the Revolutionary War. Those service members paved the way for their Black military contemporaries, who have made their marks on history. Meet five modern-day service members shaping today’s military landscape:
Lt. Gen. Nadja West
Retired Lt. General Nadja West is no stranger to being a “first.” In 2013, West became the first Black female major general of the Army’s active component, as well as the Army Medicine’s first Black female two-star general. In 2015, she became the first Black surgeon general of the Army. Finally, in 2016, she became the first Black female lieutenant general and highest-ranking woman to graduate from the U.S. Military Academy West Point.
With more than 20 years of experience, she has proved herself as a decisive leader. She helped lead the Department of Defense (DOD) through crafting the response to the Ebola crisis. She also managed an $11 billion budget and 130,000 healthcare workers when she was the commanding general of Medical Command (MEDCOM).
West currently serves on several boards, one of which is Johnson & Johnson, also a USO partner, who recently developed a COVID-19 vaccine.
Lt. Col. Shawna Rochelle Kimbrell
Several years ago, retired Lt. Col. Shawna Rochelle Kimbrell made headlines when she made her childhood dream a reality and became the first-ever Black female fighter pilot for the Air Force.
Throughout her years in school, she set her sights on the sky. As a kindergartner, she wanted to be an astronaut, but after doing some research, she decided that wasn’t the path for her. She then shifted her focus away from spaceships to jets.
Determined to get to where she wanted to go, she joined the Civil Air Patrol, worked at air shows, earned a private pilot’s license and earned a spot in the Air Force Academy. Although naysayers and doubters told her to have a back-up plan because they believed her goals were unrealistic, she knew what she was capable of and knew no such backup plan was necessary.
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In 1988, Kimbrell graduated from the Air Force Academy and earned her pilot wings the following year. She is now a decorated Air Force veteran, having earned an Air Medal, an Aerial Achievement Medal and an Army Commendation Medal – just to name a few.
With a full, successful military career already behind her, Kimbrell shows no signs of slowing down. Today, she dedicates her days to helping future officers at the Air Force Academy, where she teaches physical education and is the academy’s Director of Culture, Climate and Diversity.
Janie L. Mines
Meet the first-ever Black female plebe to attend and graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy: Janie L. Mines. She first stepped onto the Annapolis, Maryland, campus in 1976.
“The academy wasn’t ready for [women],” Mines said in an interview with the DOD. “It just happened quickly, and it needed to be done. The academy considered itself to be a combat school, and [women] were not allowed to serve in combat. So, we were seen as taking up spots for good combat officers that were needed, because we ‘couldn’t do the job.’ Additionally, there was a general belief that as Black women … I would not be able to lead in what was at that time a white-male Navy.”
Despite being accepted to other prestigious universities, Mines knew she had to accept her spot at the Academy as well as answer the call to serve and represent an underrepresented community.
“When the academy contacted me and said I was going to be the only Black woman who would be admitted, I felt like it was something I had to do.”
After graduation, Mines went on to have a successful career and become a lieutenant in the Navy Supply Corps and one of the first women to ever serve on a Navy ship. Today, she mentors young midshipmen, she is the author of “No Coincidences: Reflections of the First Black Female Graduate of the United States Naval Academy” and she is a member of the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Service.
Gen. Lloyd Austin
On January 21, 2021, retired Gen. Lloyd Austin was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in a near-unanimous vote to become the first Black defense secretary of the United States. A retired Army four-star general, he previously attended West Point and was soon commissioned as a second lieutenant.
Austin served more than 40 years in the Army. He was the 33rd vice chief of staff of the branch and was the last commanding general of the U.S. Forces – Iraq Operation New Dawn. In 2013, he earned his first “first” when President Barack Obama appointed him the commander of United States Central Command (CENTCOM), making Austin the first Black person to ever hold the position.
In 2016, he retired from the military as a decorated and distinguished Army veteran with many honors, such as a Silver Star and a Humanitarian Service Medal. He spent time in the private sector serving on several boards until President Joe Biden nominated him to be the next secretary of defense in 2021.
Col. Merryl Tengesdal
Retired Col. Merryl Tengesdal is the first and currently the only Black woman to fly a U-2 spy plane which is utilized for the Air Force’s high-altitude missions. Before this achievement, Tengesdal first served in the Navy and started off flying helicopters after graduating from the University of New Haven. She went on to become an instructor pilot, training Navy and Air Force students at Joint Student Undergraduate Pilot Training.
Tengesdal transferred to the Air Force when her Naval obligation was complete, which is where she continued to make waves in the aircraft space. Though she describes being the first Black woman to fly a U-2 plane as “surreal,” she also says it’s a “blind spot.”
“I was just a person who just was really driven and loves to fly aircraft and loves to push myself and loves to accept new challenges and I love to push myself as far as possible,” Tengesdal said.
“I try not to get caught up in being the only Black female. I just want to keep being inspirational and motivational for other people. I really appreciate that people recognize that, but I try not to think about it too much.”
As someone who set her sights on the challenging task of mastering the very nuanced U-2 aircraft, she had to overcome and perform under pressure quite a bit. Early on, in pilot training while in the Navy, her instructors told her there would always be people who would say she was there because of her race and gender, and others who would say she shouldn’t be there because of those things. One instructor reminded her, however, that she was incredibly talented and that she would keep proving to them that she belongs at the top through her tenacity and how she handles herself as an officer – and soon enough, the critics wouldn’t have those excuses anymore. In her career today, she now refers back to that conversation in instances of self-doubt.
Another pivotal moment in Tengesdal’s career was when she made it into the U-2 program. During her interview flight runs, she got frustrated during her final flight. Her instructor recognized she was struggling and asked her how she thought it was going. When she answered truthfully, he said, “Then fix it,” serving as a reminder that she knew how to fly and knew how to fly well. She trusted her instincts and was accepted into the program.
Tengesdal retired in 2017 and has been up to a lot since. One of her more recent favorite life experiences was being a contestant on the second season of CBS’ primetime show “Tough as Nails,” a reality show in which competitors are challenged to take on tasks on real-world job sites.
“People ask me all the time, ‘How was Tough as Nails?’ It’s hard,” she admitted. “It’s not just physically tough; it’s mentally and emotionally [tough]. I mean, you have to hit on all cylinders at all times. Long days, hard competitions. I liked it a lot. It’s like life.”
– This story was originally published on USO.org in 2021. It has been updated in 2022.
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