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The War(s) They Fought

Tuskegee Airmen in Italy during World War II. Bettmann/Corbis hide caption

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Bettmann/Corbis

There are three things I've found out here at the Tuskegee Airmen Inc. convention outside Dallas — TAI being a organization that "works to honor the accomplishments and perpetuate the history of the legendary young African-American men who enlisted during WW II to become America's first black military airmen, ground crew and mechanics."

I learned that my uncle was indeed a Tuskegee airman and that I'm officially too old to join the Air Force and/or the Air Force Reserve. I also learned about a medical condition called cupping of the optic disc.

I'll dovetail all that, but it starts like this: Ever since I found out my uncle was a Redtail — the nickname of the Tuskegee Airmen because the tail sections of their planes were painted a bright red — I've wanted to know all about his service, what it was like for him flying in North Africa or Italy. But he never wanted to talk about it. I'm finding that a lot of guys here this week, though they want to keep alive the history of the airmen, don't want to give many details about their personal experiences.

Part of this, I think, is generational. As one of the airmen told me, back then — then being the World War II era — EVERYBODY fought the war: the soldiers in the various theaters and folks on the home front, which really was a home front with rationing and war bond drives and civil defense teams... There was shared sacrifice all around. So, when the war was over, it was over. Everybody lived it. No need to talk about it.

And some memories are just too painful to dig up.

Like cupping of the optic disc. I was talking to a gentleman here named Eldridge Williams, who was telling me the story of his involvement with the Redtails. When the Tuskegee Airmen were formed, Eldridge wanted desperately to fight for his country. Same as a lot of blacks throughout history who wanted to defend freedom, no matter their nation, to that point, had done little for them. Even though we were in a war against oppression, there were still plenty of whites who thought blacks were beneath service. One was a doctor who, Eldridge says, examined him and wrote on his record that Eldridge had cupping of the optic disc.

Eldridge says he had no such thing. When I talked with him, despite his age, Eldridge didn't even need eyeglasses.

Regardless of whether the diagnosis was accurate, Eldridge believes that medical report kept him from flying. Despite the fact that Eldridge says he went on to train airmen at Tuskegee, to help get these young men in the air so that they could fight for our country, Eldridge told me he felt like he'd failed. Failed because he never got the wings he knew he could earn. Failed because he did not challenge the doctor who he said lied on his medical exam.

Eldridge, of course, did not even come close to failing. But such is the pain of the men who wanted not just to serve but to go above and beyond. And such is their stoicism that they rarely complain or seek undue honor. They played things however the dice tumbled, and they moved on.

And I understood why my uncle never talked much about his days with the Redtails.

That's when I went over to the Air Force recruitment stands and found out, yeah, I'm too old.

Hey, here's another take on oppressed people fighting for our freedoms I wrote for The Huffington Post last Fourth of July.