Securing The Freedom to Serve

  • Published
  • By Col. Eries L.G. Mentzer
  • Commander, Maxwell Air Force Base

On this day in February 1946, hours after being honorably discharged from the US Army and still wearing his uniform, Sgt. Isaac Woodard Jr., a decorated veteran who had recently returned from the Pacific, was removed from a Greyhound bus, beaten blind, then jailed by a white police chief in Batesburg, South Carolina. Why? Because he requested a bathroom stop.  And because he was black.

The police chief drove his nightstick into Sgt Woodard’s eyes blinding him.  His family would find him about a month later in a veterans hospital.  He never regained his sight.  The police chief was indicted on federal charges, prosecuted, and acquitted of all charges.

This brutal incident drove President Harry Truman to establish the 1946 Commission on Civil Rights and in 1948 implement Executive Orders 9980 and 9981, integrating the Federal Service and the Armed Services.

Truman’s orders put into practice the ideals laid out by our founding fathers in 1776: that “all men are created equal.” Those orders were not enough to create service cultures where men and women who raise their hand and pledge their lives can be their best, true selves – but they were a start.

As evidenced by the recent Protect our Defenders Report and the Inspector General’s Independent Racial Disparity Review, more work is required for our Air Force to fully achieve our founding ideals.

Acknowledging the Gap

To effect change, we must be willing to acknowledge the gap between our founding ideals of life, justice, freedom, and equality for all, and the realities experienced today. Only then can we hope to build on the work of generations of courageous, daring people from all walks of life who have been willing to challenge the status quo and provide the leadership necessary to close this gap.

Our leadership right now at all levels is essential.  Failure to lead drives a deeper divide and dishonors all who have served to close the gap.

Leadership starts with civil discourse. Engaging with people of diverse beliefs, biologies, and biographies allows us to identify bias and gain a deeper understanding of barriers we may not realize exist. 

For some, race is an uncomfortable and difficult subject to discuss, whereas others find this topic unavoidable given their lived experiences. Nevertheless, we must get uncomfortable and confront this and other issues now.

Starting A Conversation

Starting a conversation is easy: ask “I want to understand,” then listen, seek disconfirming feedback, and engage meaningfully.  Ultimately, we all just want to be seen, heard, valued, and included in our units, our Service and our founding ideals.

Racism and inequality are issues that we must openly and purposefully confront if we want to change our Department of the Air Force for the better.

Our Air Force has a tradition of leading the way.  In 1949, the Air Force was the first service to embrace integration and achieve a SecDef-approved racial integration plan. Let’s continue this tradition by creating a plan of action now.

We can begin with addressing the gaps identified in the recent reports in our own units and follow with a more in-depth review of equal treatment and opportunities from recruitment through retirement.

We have a template — in 1950 the President’s Committee on the Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Forces published the Freedom to Serve Report after the directed integration of the Armed Forces.  The Freedom to Serve Report conveyed founding ideals for an inclusive, fully integrated force. 

The committee found that inequality in the Armed Forces contributed to inefficiency and that equal worth, equal rights, and equal opportunity are foundational to America’s value system.

The Freedom To Serve

Building on the this report, 42nd Air Base Wing Command Chief Master Sgt. Mike Morgan and I identified The Freedom to Serve as one of our three command priorities.  Under this priority, our goal is to cultivate a fully inclusive force by removing barriers to service.  We established Freedom to Serve Champions to lead this initiative in partnership with our two civic leaders Virginia Whitfield and Lora McClendon, and our Inclusion Advisor, Bryan Stevenson who is the Founder and Director of Montgomery’s Equal Justice Initiative.

Our Freedom to Serve Champions are charged with listening and identifying barriers that prevent Airmen, Guardians, and families from rising to their best and then tasking Chief Morgan and I to get after removing those barriers. You can reach our Freedom to Serve Champions at:  We want to hear from you on how we can best secure your Freedom to Serve.

On that bus in 1946, Sgt. Isaac Woodard Jr. simply wanted to experience the same freedoms in America that he honorably served abroad defending for America.  By demanding dignity and respect and challenging his maltreatment, the resultant beating left him permanently blind.

Yet, the story of the blinding of Sgt. Woodard opened the eyes of the Commander-In-Chief and drove greater Freedom to Serve for many Americans.

To honor the service and sacrifice of Sgt. Woodard and the many others who brought us closer to achieving America’s founding ideals, it is now up to us, all of us, to secure all Airmen and Guardians The Freedom to Serve.