Making History While Serving

On land, sea, and in the air, blacks have fought to protect our country. Some even made history doing it, like former Marine Capt. Vernice Armour. She is the first black female combat pilot. Armour served two combat tours in Iraq and left the Marine Corps this past June.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

On land, sea and in the air, blacks have fought to protect our country. Some even made history doing it, like retired Marine Corps Captain Vernice Armour. Vernice is the first black female fighter pilot. She served two combat tours in Iraq and left the Marine Corps this past June.

How are you doing?

Captain VERNICE ARMOUR (U.S. Marine Corps, Retired): I'm fantastic. I am doing excellent. I'm very blessed. Thank you. And just one thing, I didn't retire. I didn't do the 20 like Commander Black, but I did serve a little over 14 years Army and Marine Corps.

CHIDEYA: Well, Captain, the military has traditionally been a way up for black folks. You were in good grades, went to college, like Commander Black, why did you join the Marines?

Capt. ARMOUR: I joined the Marines because it was the toughest - the most hardcore, it was the elite. Like I said, I had previously enlisted in the Army Reserves, logged on through college and went on to become a police officer in Nashville, Tennessee.

When I saw the opportunity to join the Marine Corps, actually, to become a Marine, because you don't join the Marines, as an officer and a pilot, it was an opportunity I felt I couldn't pass up, and really I was taking it to the next level, and the Marine Corps was the only choice for me.

My dad was a Marine, Clarence Jackson, and my grandfather was also a Marine, and my father, Gaston Armour, was a - is a retired Army officer.

CHIDEYA: Some of your family members served during times where there was a lot more racial tension. Can you tell me about that?

Capt. ARMOUR: Yes. Well, my grandfather, in particular, when he joined the Marine Corps back in 1943, he went to Munford Point, which was the third Marine Corps boot camp that was opened up because blacks were segregated. And I was asking him earlier this summer on videotape, so I can record his oral history, about what it was like when he found out he was being drafted into the military, and he selected to go into the Marine Corps because the Marines didn't draft.

Getting on that bus and having to sit in the back, and after passing a certain line, he can move anywhere on the bus. Fighting in World War II in Guadal Canal, seeing a boat blow up right after he was released off post, then coming back, sitting in a seat that is ticket designated, but once they've passed that line, he could no longer go into the rest stops and had to move to the back of the bus. It was very humbling.

CHIDEYA: Now, do you - in your experience - and this may be a tough question, is it more difficult dealing with race or with gender in the military?

Capt. ARMOUR: You know, it's - for me, it's not difficult dealing with either. If I were to say there weren't obstacles, then that wouldn't be being completely honest. Yes, there are still obstacles out there. But for me, it's about acknowledging the obstacle but not giving it power. So, yes.

I did have to sleep in different areas separated from my crew who was all male, because I was the only female Cobra pilot for that attack helicopter. But I chose to - when we went up into Iraq, we sleep in the same tent, because when that call came forward and we all had to rush out to the aircraft, I didn't want anyone having to look for me in a female tent. I wanted to be right there because we were a team.

So there are certain logistical hurdles that you have to get over. But as far as the working side by side, once people, I think, knew who I am and they find out who other minorities and women are, it's really about doing a job and focusing on the mission.

Now, are there things - tensions that we have to release by having diversity there? Yes. But that's normal. And we just have to learn to work together. And I think we're doing that.

CHIDEYA: Captain, going into Iraq, it must have been interesting to interact with the civilians. Did they perceive you as different because you are African-American or because you're a woman from some of the other participants in your unit?

Capt. ARMOUR: Honestly, I was not on the ground outside of our base much. I only went out once when we all went to a restaurant. And, yes, there were quite a few eyes that looked at me.

But I think women, in general, over there, it's a rarity, especially for the white one with the blonde hair and the blue eyes. And we have to be careful, especially in that culture. But for me, personally, I didn't see or have too much interaction with the native people.

CHIDEYA: If you were talking to a high school student and that person, 18, 19 years old said, you know what, as a black person, I cannot ethically enlist in the military because of this war. This is an issue that's come up with sharply declining enrolments and much of it has to do with views about this war, what would you say to that person?

Capt. ARMOUR: I would tell him, I didn't enlist in the Army and become a commissioned officer to go fight in Iraq, neither did my dad, my stepdad or my grandfather when he joined back in 1943. Giving of yourself to the public service is - that's an allegiance, that's something you do for your nation and you do for yourself.

The military has been here long before Iraq and will be here long after Iraq. And we have to get beyond this Bush administration and Iraq war because that's not the end all be all to what the military is about and the legacy that my ancestors have left for me to even be able to have this opportunity.

CHIDEYA: Giving what your family has been through and your experience, what does patriotism mean to you?

Capt. ARMOUR: Patriotism means living. It means being blessed. It means having a place that I can do what I want to do, pursue my passions. I'm absolutely blessed. And it's about passing those blessings on. And fortunately, I live in a nation that allows me to pass on whatever blessing I want. I have the freedom to do that, to say it and to be it.

CHIDEYA: When you think about the future of the military and these declining enrolments, do you think it's going to hurt the black community in some way that there are not as many people in the military as there used to be.

Capt. ARMOUR: Well, yes, it is going to have an effect. Because if you don't have people coming in right now, then 25 years from now and 20 years from now, we aren't going to have as many in senior leadership roles. And that's why laying the foundation is so important. Corporate America can hire a CEO. To be a general, you have to put in your time and pay your dues. A general is a second lieutenant that comes in right now is a general 25 years from now.

So we absolutely have to watch what we're doing and educate our next generations on what the military is about and why it is so needed. Diversity is our strength, and without that diversity, just like the Army and Navy saw(ph) where they had implement diversity to strengthen those units. We still need that today, even more so. The world is global. We're diversifying and we have to have that diversity of thought.

CHIDEYA: Well, Captain Armour, thank you so much.

Capt. ARMOUR: Thank you. It's wonderful being here.

CHIDEYA: Vernice Armour is a former captain who served in the U.S. Marine Corps. She is the first African-American woman fighter pilot.

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