Former 459th ARW Commander receives historic promotion
Oliver Goodall, retired Brig. Gen. Leon A. Johnson, and retired Army Maj. Nancy C. Leftenant-Colon pin brigadier general stars on Brig. Gen. Stayce D. Harris during the 38th Annual Tuskegee Airmen, Inc., convention Aug. 7 in Las Vegas. The Air Force's highest ranking black female aviator, General Harris is currently based at the Pentagon as the assistant to the U.S. Africa Command commander. General Johnson is the former mobilization assistant to the Headquarters Air Education and Training Command director of operations, Mr. Goodall is an original Tuskegee Airman, and Major Leftenant-Colon is the first black nurse in the Reserve or active-duty Army nurse corps. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Amaani Lyle)
by Tech. Sgt. Amaani Lyle
459th Air Refueling Wing Public Affaris Office
8/18/2009 - LAS VEGAS -- The Air Force's highest ranking black female aviator held off on making history -- ceremoniously, anyway -- so she could share the occasion with her heroes, military trailblazers in their own right.
Though Brig. Gen. Stayce D. Harris officially donned her first star in April, she synchronized the pin-on ceremony with the 38th Annual Tuskegee Airmen Inc., convention here Aug. 7 as homage to the famed black aviators who trained at Tuskegee Army Air Field, Ala., and helped assure U.S. victory during World War II.
"Two words describe me this evening: blessed and grateful," said General Harris, the Pentagon-based assistant to the U.S. Africa Command commander.
Former mobilization assistant to the Headquarters Air Education and Training Command director of operations and retired Brig. Gen. Leon A. Johnson officiated the ceremony, citing a partial list of General Harris's myriad accomplishments such as being the first and only black female aviator to ever attain the rank of general in the Air Force. Former commander of the 459th Air Refueling Wing at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., General Harris is also the first and only black woman to command a flying wing in the Air Force.
In her speech, General Harris related journalist Tom Brokaw's description of the generation of Americans who grew up during the Great Depression, fought in World War II or stayed behind to produce weapons and supplies for the war.
"The 'Greatest Generation' describes the people who, during and after the war, went on to build modern America -- and that includes the Tuskegee Airmen, the Women Airforce Service Pilots and all the men and women of that era," General Harris said.
Many of General Harris's invitees and those she selected to affix her stars are themselves historical figures in aviation and military.
Among the people who pinned on the general's hat, shirt and service coat stars were Tuskegee Airmen retired Lt. Col. Leo Gray and Oliver Goodall, the Selfridge, Mich.,-based B-25 pilot involved in the Freeman Field Mutiny, considered a first step toward the official desegregation of all U.S. forces worldwide in June 1949. Also participating in the ceremony was retired Army Maj. Nancy C. Leftenant-Colon, the first black nurse in the Reserve or active-duty Army nurse corps.
"We all know the history of the men, women, officer, enlisted, civilians and their spouses who were part of the experience during World War II," General Harris said. "We know many of them returned home from war and did not receive the welcome that they richly deserved."
The general cited what she felt was more remarkable than the Tuskegee Airmen's wartime achievements.
"Though they faced discrimination, they countered with a drive and determination to succeed," the general said. "Instead of being bitter, they became better. They were business owners, educators and mayors and rose to the highest ranks in their military and civilian careers."
Accomplishments become heritage, General Harris explained to her young invitees -- including Kimberly Anyadike, the 15-year-old who became the youngest African-American female pilot to fly solo cross country.
"It's our responsibility as adults to provide the mentorship, encouragement and support that you need to succeed," she said. "The work the Tuskegee Airmen do to introduce youth to the world of aviation through continual grants and scholarships awarded to students, individuals and groups is inspiring."
In April, General Harris and Mr. Goodall presented the annual Tuskegee Airmen-Stayce D. Harris Award to a graduating Air Force ROTC cadet at the general's alma mater, the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
General Harris thanked other notable aviators in attendance including Coast Guard Lt. jg Jeanine McIntosh, the first black female in the Coast Guard; Theresa Mae Claiborne, the first black female pilot in the Air Force; Brenda Robinson, the first black female aviator in the Navy; and Vernice Armour, the first black female pilot of the Marine Corps.
Ms. Armour, a former combat AH-1 Cobra helicopter pilot, expressed pride in General Harris's contributions to aviation and shared her own insight about diversity.
"I don't look at diversity as just race, gender or religion, but lots of things -- the way you think, the way you walk or talk - everything that makes up you," Ms. Armour said. "The military is not going to go downrange and win with just one service or just one career field. Diversity in everything is how we'll achieve mission success."
Even high-visibility guests outside the realm of the military said they were moved by the energy of the historic evening.
"I am just stricken by the incredible dignity, honor and power of this whole expression of community," said famed stage and screen actor Ron Glass. "The Tuskegee Airmen have impressed me as people of tremendous character. I'm humbled to be here."
Mr. Glass said the impact of the original Tuskegee Airmen on today's society is a good sign of what is to come.
"I'm confident that what's being cultivated today will also ensure the future," he said. "It makes me feel very safe."