CONTINGENCY OPERATING BASE SPEICHER, Iraq – As African American History Month neared an end, service members and civilians gathered to celebrate African American history and culture at the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Center on Contingency Operating Base Speicher, Iraq, Feb. 26.
During the African American History Month Celebration, service members related stories of African American heroes, such as Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., recited poetry written by renowned African American wordsmiths like Maya Angelou, and shared personal musical talents.
“This month is important,” said keynote speaker, Lt. Col. Keith Hayes, deputy information operations officer, 4th Infantry Division and U.S. Division-North.
“Our future is shaped by our past; Black History Month gives us the opportunity to learn the stories of those we may not have known much about until now,” said Hayes, who led the observance titled “Living Up to Your Potential.”
Hayes, a native of Columbia, S.C., shared stories of largely unsung African American military milestones, such as the 369th Infantry Regiment, known as “Harlem Hell Fighters,” a New York National Guard unit that fought alongside the French in the trenches of World War I, and the 555th Parachute Infantry Company, “Triple Nickel,” the first African American paratrooper company formed in 1944.
Hayes also told the story of his father Melvin Hayes, who after six months in Vietnam found out he was sent in the place of another Melvin Hayes due to a clerical error.
Hayes explained his father decided to finish his tour to stand in place of a brother, who was slated for deployment to the front lines.
“It is that spirit, camaraderie and closeness we share with our fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, that bind us together regardless of color, gender, religion, heritage or financial status,” he said.
The U.S. military saw the need to foster a diverse culture within its communities to overcome widespread bigotry and racial segregation, said Hayes.
“Today’s military is one in which every individual gets to play on an increasingly level field,” he said.
The men and women serving at COB Speicher attended the event for more than to show their appreciation of African American history; they came together to remember their home, said Capt. Larry Burney, U.S. Division-North, a working group action officer, Company B, Division Special Troops Battalion, 4th Infantry Division.
“Some friends of mine and I decided we wanted to formally celebrate this month,” said the New Orleans-native. “This was particularly important to me, because it is African American History Month, but we hope to have more events like this to give everyone a break from the monotony of work, gym and sleep.”
It is important to remember the struggles that history’s forefathers went through, said Spc. Darnell Crater, vocalist, Ivy Division Band, DSTB, 4th Inf. Div.
Crater, who hails from Lynwood, Ill., said without the efforts of those who came before, the U.S. would not have the best military in the world.
Following the ceremony service members of many races and creeds ate together, relaxed and fellowshipped as a unified force.