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African-American History Month: 'Heroes for All Americans'

SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- February, as African-American History Month, is a time to reflect on the contributions of African-Americans to our country. Though no single article can adequately cover African-American history justly, there are few areas that can rival the vast participation of African-Americans in war.

African-Americans came to the aid of their country every time it called. From the foundations of independence, to the sands of Iraq, African-American Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines demonstrated that they too have a fierce love of country and a stubborn fortitude to succeed in battle.

African-Americans stand proud in our fighting history and deserve their rightful place in the study of that history.

From Crispus Attucks, who was killed by British soldiers during the Boston Massacre in 1770, to the freed and escaped slaves of the Civil War, through the Buffalo soldiers of Wild West fame, to the Tuskegee Airman and right up to today, there has been no shortage of African-American patriotism. Here are just a few.

The 369th Infantry Regiment, a "colored" New York National Guard unit known as the "Black Rattlers" fought in World War I under the French 4th Army and achieved amazing battlefield successes. Despite the obvious racial prejudices of the time, they earned an impressive number of awards for valor with over 171 decorations and the entire regiment receiving France's prestigious Croix de Guerre. While they still had to ride on the back of the bus, their heroics were so well-known that they led the New York City World War I victory parade.

World War II brought forth another wave of distinguished African-American patriots. On the USS West Virginia, Doris Miller, a cook third class, was up early the morning of Dec. 7, 1941. As he served breakfast, explosions rocked the mighty ship and he went to the upper deck. Seeing flames, chaos, and death, Petty Officer Miller first aided his wounded commanding officer taking him to safety. Then he took up a station at one of the many unmanned machine guns and began firing.

Although he was trained only as a cook with no instruction in the use of the automatic weapon, Petty Officer Miller reportedly downed two Japanese aircraft before the attacks stopped. He never left his post during the hours of the attack -- a post he assumed out of necessity. The commander of the Pacific Fleet, Navy Adm. Chester Nimitz, personally presented Petty Officer Miller with the Navy Cross, an award for valor second only to the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Vietnam saw Army Pfc. Milton Olive III receive the Medal of Honor for an act of bravery few people in any war have equaled. Private Olive's unit was under heavy enemy attacks from the Viet Cong. As the enemy fled the counterattacks of Private Olive's 3rd Platoon, a few VC turned back and threw grenades.

One grenade landed in the midst of Private Olive, three buddies and the platoon leader. Olive grabbed the grenade and covered it with his body, absorbing the blast and saving his fellow soldiers while ensuring success of the counterassault.

At the White House ceremony to present the posthumous Medal of Honor to Private Olive's parents, President Johnson summed up the reason we should remember the example of Private Olive and others like him: "In dying, he taught those of us who remain how we ought to live."

Another Vietnam war hero, Col. Fred Cherry, endured torture, solitary confinement and repeated beatings as a prisoner of war for more than seven years. He was brutally tortured when he refused to sign statements that the United States was a racist country or make broadcasts encouraging African-American soldiers not to fight. Even after suffering the most brutal torture, he never gave in to his captors, telling them, "You'll have to kill me before I denounce my country."

All of these men practiced and validated ideals that are uniquely American. As Americans, we should look at these examples and so many more -- not just in February, but all year -- to remind us that all Americans contribute to the preservation of what makes America great.

Hopefully, through role models like these African-Americans, we can all live Colonel Cherry's words, "Race has nothing to do with it -- I'll succeed because I'm good," both in our own goals and how we look at others. Their ability to do just that is what makes them not just heroes to African-Americans, but heroes to all Americans.