NEWS | Feb. 26, 2021

African American Guardsman makes history

By Staff Sgt. Brian Schroeder Oklahoma National Guard

OKLAHOMA CITY – At 42 years old, 2nd Lt. Bennie Brown, Jr., 120th Engineer Battalion personnel officer, has had an accomplished military career spanning 24 years. He has held four military occupations, deployed to Afghanistan and became one of the top National Guard recruiters for minorities in Oklahoma. But this was just the beginning of his career.

On Oct. 23, Brown became the oldest African American – and tied the record for oldest U.S. Army Soldier – to graduate Engineering Basic Officer Leaders Course at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.

Brown said he chose to become an engineering officer because of the challenge that comes with the profession, adding that the course was one of the most demanding experiences in his military career.

"If I was to tell you it was not challenging, I would be lying," Brown said. "I did not expect any different treatment because of my age. I could not match some of them on physical activity, but I am 42. I was able to hold my own."

Having gone through the course with other officers who are the same age as his two children, Brown said he felt like a father figure to some and became a mentor to others.

"It's a humbling experience to wear the same rank as somebody who just finished college, but that's the expectation," Brown said. We all have the same rank, and we all earned that rank from different paths."

Growing up in Guthrie, Brown was one of only a few black students in his high school graduating class. When he enlisted in the Oklahoma National Guard, Brown faced the challenge of being the only African American infantryman in his unit, Company C, 1st Battalion, 179th Infantry Regiment, 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team.

"That was intimidating when I was 17," Brown said. "A couple of people welcomed me and a couple of people treated me like an outsider. I had to prove myself, and that's what I did."

As an enlisted Soldier, Brown served as an infantryman, mortarman and human resources specialist. When he was asked to become a recruiter, Brown said his eyes were opened to the opportunity to show others how to create a career in the military despite the racial hurdles he had to overcome.

"When they approached me to become a recruiter, it was to put me in black schools," Brown said. "Let me tell you, it was challenging, but the students would talk to me. They would have conversations with me because I looked like them."

Brown's success in recruiting from predominantly black and minority schools in the Oklahoma City area led to him developing and teaching a program for students from minority high schools on how to build the education and skills to pass the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, the entrance exam for the U.S. Armed Forces.

During his time as a recruiter, Brown was also chosen to be the Oklahoma National Guard representative for the Oklahoma City Black Chamber of Commerce. He said the opportunity to speak with black community leaders opened his eyes to the reality of the levels of inclusion within the ranks.

"Going to those meetings and speaking to students in the schools, some of these students did not know they could join the Oklahoma National Guard and become an officer," Brown said. "A lot of the minorities I speak with said it is challenging to come up within the ranks because they do not believe they are heard or spoken for or have a voice."

These experiences sparked Brown's motivation to become an officer. After speaking with his mentors and discussing the lack of racial diversity in the ranks, Brown decided he could be an influence on others by showing race, color and age should not determine how much you can achieve.

"I did not see a lot of African Americans in the officer ranks in the state of Oklahoma," Brown said. "Not just for African Americans, but minorities in general, I wanted other Soldiers to see that it's possible to see somebody of their color in the officer ranks, and you can do it at any age."

When Brown received his officer branch assignment to engineering, he said he immediately wanted to re-branch if given the opportunity. However, after learning about the shortage of African American engineer officers, Brown said he now sees it as a privilege to encourage minorities to branch into the field of engineering.

"To be honest, I didn't know I was the oldest black guy to graduate from Engineering BOLC," Brown said. "When it was brought to my attention, I was surprised, but I was also honored because now I feel more of an important role. It's important to share with others that it is a good thing to have somebody who looks like you in the place you want to be, but it's important to be that good example in wanting to go out there and influence others."

Brown said he believes representation within the top ranks and the aspirations for others to reach those ranks go hand-in-hand.

"I think leading by example and having people of color in leadership roles demonstrates the National Guard's commitment to equality for everyone," Brown said. "But, it takes more than just being in a position of responsibility; it also requires communicating how I got here to younger Soldiers. It is not easy, but I want to show them that it is possible. Leading from the front and by example is key to increasing numbers of minorities and inclusion in the ranks in any state."

For Brown, the military has been a central theme and constant throughout his life. Today, Brown's daughter is working toward her goal of becoming a member of the Oklahoma National Guard's Judge Advocate Generals Corps. His son enlisted in the Oklahoma National Guard as an infantryman and serves in the same unit where Brown started his Oklahoma National Guard career.

"I didn't do it to be the first [black, 42-year-old graduate of Engineer BOLC]," Brown said. "I did all of this to be an example for my kids. I don't want them to think anything is impossible. Put your skin color aside and act like you are the majority and you deserve and have earned every opportunity that everybody else has."

In addition to his military career, Brown has also accomplished personal career goals many people have not achieved, regardless of race. While completing officer candidate school, Brown completed his master's degree and is a licensed professional counselor. He is working on a doctoral degree in community care and counseling, specializing in traumatology.

Brown says that by seeing people as equal, biases and uncomfortable feelings will dissolve over time.

"Some people go their entire lives holding on to negative feelings about a certain race that they learned as children," Brown said. "I tell people that I mentor to act like you are equal and do not expect anything. If you act like you are equal, you won't feel like anything is negatively being done to you and you don't feel like less of a person.

"I act like I am the majority. I don't act like I am a minority or a person of color. I act like me. I overwhelm people with my knowledge and education, so when they look at my color, they will know I went above and beyond to get where I am. I didn't just check the boxes; I exploded the boxes."

Since beginning his path to becoming an officer, Brown has assisted other Soldiers of all colors, ages and genders to do the same. He was recently chosen to be a member of the Oklahoma National Guard Joint Diversity Executive Council, which was created by presidential executive order to promote diversity and inclusion in the federal workforce.

I think everybody wants to be treated equally," Brown said. "Everybody wants to have their voice heard, and some do not feel their voice is being heard. If you go into an organization where you do not see anybody who looks like you, it can be very unfriendly or uncomfortable. I think having different genders and races within an organization makes that organization stronger. It shows new Soldiers that we welcome you and other people like you here. It is getting better and I am happy to see the numbers going up."