KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. --
Mandatory training ... It doesn’t matter what the subject is, an Airmen’s first thought can be ‘death by PowerPoint.’
So, Col. Reginald Trujillo, 403rd Mission Support Group commander, decided to try a new tactic in training. He gathered his MSG leadership together April 9 and took them on a staff ride, but not a traditional staff ride.
“The first staff ride program in U.S. military history took place in July 1906 and has since been used to bring to life the historic battles at the actual locations or battlefields where the actual fighting took place, allowing participants the opportunity to learn and analyze the terrain, decisions and actions made by the key leaders involved,” according to “The Staff Ride, Fundamentals, Experiences, and Techniques” from the U.S. Army Center of Military History website.
Trujillo was looking to do something unique, so a different type of “battlefield” was selected. A battlefield that would confront our history and help us overcome our racial inequality.
“I selected Montgomery, Alabama, as the ‘battlefield’ for our staff ride,” said the colonel. “And, while Montgomery in the mid-1950s wasn’t a traditional battlefield, it was the battleground from which the African American civil rights movement began and where key civil rights leaders, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and E.D. Nixon, earned their stripes.”
The particular location was selected after Trujillo attended a commander’s professional development course that had a key component on diversity and inclusion, which included the same tour for the staff ride, and he said the guest speaker, Mr. Bryan Stevenson, really struck a chord with him during his speech on racial disparity.
Setting up the trip, Trujillo selected a mixed group from his MSG staff, from ages, backgrounds, races, and ranks. They all traveled by bus together to Montgomery for the staff ride.
By bus… that should stand out or maybe the name Rosa Parks and her actions of refusing to give up her seat on a public bus does. Because Parks’ historic act of civil disobedience sparked the successful Montgomery Bus boycott which began the Civil Rights Movement in Montgomery.
Sarah Cinq Mars, 403rd MSG secretary, said, “We planned the tour with discussions during the bus ride about diversity and inclusion to really see why it is needed, how it is critical to mission readiness, some challenges that cause a barrier, and why leadership is important in promoting it.”
Cinq Mars explained the schedule of events was originally set to include a visit to The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration; walking downtown Montgomery where key events in the Civil Rights movement took place; The National Memorial for Peace and Justice; and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s church, but the weather had other plans.
The first stop was the Legacy Museum, located on a site where enslaved people were once warehoused before being sold. The museum tells the story of African American enslavement, the evolution of lynching, legalized racial segregation, and racial hierarchy in America, according to the website at https://museumandmemorial.eji.org.
“As I toured each exhibit, I learned more about the history of the struggles of black Americans that I was not taught in school,” said Master Sgt. Margaret Montemarano, 403rd MSG unit deployment manager. “I learned that you have to know history, and understand it before you can truly understand what’s going on today.”
Again while the Civil Rights Movement was not a traditional battle, there was still bloodshed and it was still a battle that was waged on American soil.
And some of that soil was seen during the tours as parts of key displays at both the Legacy Museum and the Memorial. There were jars of soil lining shelves, from the places where African Americans were lynched, marked with the name of a lynching victim.
Chief Master Sgt. Larry Anderson, 403rd MSG superintendent, who came from Maryland and his father’s family, who hails from Newport News, Virginia, said, “Seeing soil from areas that I frequented, plus the fact that I never knew that lynching was part of Maryland and Virginia’s history, then realizing it wasn’t just a deep south stigma brought up a lot of raw emotions and has opened up my mind.”
The staff ride continued to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which is the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved Black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence according to their website at https://museumandmemorial.eji.org.
For some walking through the memorial and seeing the 800 six-foot steel monuments, both suspended in the air and those lying on the ground, that were engraved with the names of each county from 20 states and with the names of lynching victims engraved on them was another eye opener.
“If I could only use one word, I would say, sobering,” said Lt. Col. Jeff Frye, 41st Aerial Port Squadron commander. “Seeing those monuments, I just had to look up the county I live in and the stain was there, seeing firsthand the history of how African Americans were treated was sobering and I learned a lot, which will help me talk to my African American service members,” said Frye.
He said he feels that what he learned will help as he works with his squadron on having those ‘uncomfortable conversations’ as were discussed by the group on the bus.
Some of that history wasn’t only learned by Frye. Senior Airman Oliver Polk, 403rd Logistics Readiness Squadron vehicle operations technician, said that there is a lot more to African American history than what he learned in school, and that we are a lot more diverse when it comes to today’s world.
For Polk, he said he feels that the LRS is already a very diverse group, with open discussions when it comes to diversity, race, sexuality, and religion.
“It helps us build character, confidence, and morale, so I think it should be an open discussion across the wing as well,” said Polk. “When it comes to promoting it across the wing you have to first explain that it is a sensitive topic, and be sure that the people involved are open to having the conversation, and that they are willing to have it. There has to be openness.”
While Anderson said that one thing he learned during the group discussions was that while yes discrimination discussions can be considered ’uncomfortable conversations,’ they will never get better unless we keep having them until they are just conversations.
“We have to listen, and I mean hear it from all sides. Why do people feel the way they do,” he said. “And I mean really listen to how people feel the way they do and listen to understand, not listen to just respond.”
Trujillo said he hopes that the staff ride gave his team an understanding and a better appreciation of the African American experience.
“Now that we have given this experience to these leaders, they can share that with their Airmen. Diversity is about being invited to the party. And in the Air Force, if you look around at our Airmen, we’re an amazing and incredibly diverse team. But inclusion isn’t about just being invited to the party, it’s about being asked to dance. We’ve got to do a better job of ensuring our Airmen are being asked to get involved, to provide that perspective,” said Trujillo.
“Because ultimately, it is about combat readiness, it is about the brother and sister fighting on your side, being comfortable, and building that trust in each other.”