CAMP ARIFJAN, KUWAIT –
Army Reserve Soldiers deployed here shared their thoughts about Black History Month and Black culture in America.
Chief Warrant Officer 4 Denrick Mills, an air mobility warrant officer deployed with the Army Reserve’s 310th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) to Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, said as a native of St. Kitts-Nevis, he has a unique perspective based on his experiences.
Mills said in America there is always a stigma attached to being Black.
“Someone is always waiting for you to make a mistake, because you do not belong in your position,” he said. “For me, it is the biggest thing that hasn’t changed, since I’ve been here.”
The stigma is not there in St. Kitts-Nevis, where virtually everyone from the prime minister down was Black, he said.
“What blew my mind was people making a big deal about a person of color or a Black person being in charge of something—like a Black president—that was not a thing for me growing up,” he said. “Growing up, everyone looked like me,” Mills said.
The 33-year veteran of Army service said he joined the Army a year after arriving in New York City as an 18-year-old without prospects or plans for his future.
“I came here with lint in my pockets,” he said. “I joined the Army because I had no idea what to do and where to go.”
“The Army does not completely level the playing field--but, it does to a point,” he said. “We have rules and they apply no matter what—color is not one of those things that changes the rules.”
Mills said the Army story he always tells for Black History Month is the “Smokejumpers” of the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, an all-Black airborne unit.
In the last year of the Second World War, just as the battalion was about to get orders to deploy for overseas combat, the Japanese unleashed an estimated 9,000 high-altitude balloons with incendiaries and bombs into West Coast forests.
Balloons were found as far away as Canada and Montana.
To counter this threat, the War Department ordered the “Triple Nickle” to Oregon in April 1945 for the “Firefly Project.”
Mills said, “They used this airborne unit to jump in and put the fire out—that’s how the smokejumpers started.”
Lt. Col. Stacy M. Allen-McGee said Black History Month has a special meaning for her as a Signal Corps officer because she is still striving to succeed as an African-American woman.
"Just off the top of my head, I think I have met only two other African-American four-star generals with a Signal Corps background, and neither were females" she said.
Allen-McGee said this Black History Month, she is thinking about retired Gen. Dennis L. Via, an African-American and the first Signal Corps officer to wear four stars, since World War II's Gen. Henry "Hap" Arnold, who was a signal officer before transferring to aviation.
The lieutenant colonel said she served under Via, after she first commissioned with the 16th Signal Battalion, 3rd Signal Brigade out of Fort Hood, Texas.
"He was my battalion commander, when I was a second lieutenant," she said.
“Via gave me my first coin,” she said. "I was the platoon leader for Alpha Company's 1st Platoon, and we were on a field exercise and my node center --the Army doesn't have node centers anymore--my node center was the first of three nodes to get shots, that is the satellite shots, in first."
Allen-McGee said she was proud to return the honor to the general.
"When he spoke to cyber students attending War College at the College of Information and Cyber Space at the National Defense University, Spring 2020. I was chosen to present him with our class coin after his presentation--he remembered me--I told him he had given me my first coin, his coin, 20 years ago,” she said.
“What a moment, I was honored and so was he, to see his mentorship live on in another signal officer.”
Staff Sgt. Briana Helem, a paralegal specialist with 310th ESC’s Staff Judge Advocate’s office deployed here, said Black History Month should be a time when people stop and think about the contributions to America made by Black Americans.
The challenge with having a one-month focus is that it slips off the radar the rest of the year, she said. “I don’t think of it as one month. To me, it is every month. I am always Black, regardless.”
Helem said she wants the scope of Black history broadened out beyond the same lessons taught in school. “When I was younger, they never told us about Black Wall Street. It was always about slavery and Black inventors.”
The Army legal specialist said people should be taught about Madame C.J. Walker, the Louisiana-born businesswoman, who became the first African-American millionaire from her hairstyle and beauty products company that marketed to black women.
“We should talk about Madame C.J. Walker, George Washington Carver, Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King and how they paved the way for us now,” she said.
“A lot has changed, but there still need to be changes,” she said. “We still have a lot of learning to do about our culture and our systems.”