ARLINGTON, Va. – The National Guard will recognize three anniversaries this year that legally established racial integration in the military, opened more opportunities for women to serve and ended the draft.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of President Harry S. Truman’s Executive Order of the Desegregation of the Armed Forces; the 75th anniversary of the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act of 1948; and the 50th anniversary of the elimination of the draft — creating an all-volunteer military.
“The Department of Defense saw profound changes during the 20th century, including eradicating racial segregation, integrating women in our ranks, and establishing an all-volunteer force,” said Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau. “The Joint Force, including the National Guard, is better for these changes, and we continue a forward-leaning approach in facing the personnel challenges of the 21st century.”
For SEA Tony Whitehead, senior enlisted advisor to the CNGB, the desegregation order turned the page to a new chapter for Black Americans who, for more than a century, had already served, many making the ultimate sacrifice in battle.
“When you think about those who had an opportunity to serve before 1948, they didn’t care about the fact that they couldn’t serve [in integrated units],” said Whitehead. “They were willing to give their lives, even though they weren’t recognized as people who wanted to give their lives or people who could serve alongside [others] who didn’t look like them.”
In a recent group discussion, Whitehead pointed to the bravery of the Buffalo Soldiers, Tuskegee Airmen and Montford Point Marines — all-Black units whose sacrifices paved the way for others.
Members of those units, he said, were thinking about the future of what a military should look like. “They knew we would read about their stories at some point,” he said. More importantly, Whitehead added, “they lost their lives because they believed in something they may not be around to see.”
Though segregation is an institution of the past, Whitehead said that real change ultimately comes from people, not laws — especially when trying to attract all walks of life.
“When someone says to me, ‘Hey, I would love to see more African Americans in my organization,’ my question is, Are you part of the recruiting process?” Whitehead said. “When it comes to inspiring change, it’s on every one of us.”
In recognition of a half-century of the all-volunteer force, Whitehead said the Guard — as the successor of the colonial militia — was the original beacon of volunteerism.
He explained that militia members were all about “picking up the plow, working the land, putting the plow down, picking up the musket, defending the land they’re working and defending the nation’s future.”
Kathleen Hicks, deputy secretary of the Defense Department, said the all-volunteer model continues to be the right decision.
“And that’s why we celebrate [the anniversary] — it has delivered for us, operationally and societally,” she said.
Seventy-five years after the implementation of the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, Air Force Master Sgt. Leah Camacho said female leaders are more commonplace in the military.
Yet their presence, she said, is more than just about inclusion for the sake of it.
“The integration of women in our military makes us a more lethal force because, inherently, society places many expectations on females, “said Camacho.
That mindset has conditioned “women to take on roles such as the caretaker, the nurturer, the disciplinarian, the negotiator, and the peacekeeper,” she said. “So having our diverse voices around the table, at the front lines and in leadership roles, allows us to utilize these many capabilities that we have developed throughout our life experiences, making us an unstoppable force.”
Camacho, recently selected as the first National Guard Bureau Joint Staff first sergeant, said all women — especially those just entering the military — can be trailblazers.
“Let your light shine bright. Step out of your comfort zone and don’t be afraid to fail,” she said. “Challenges will come your way, but they will help you grow and unleash parts of you that you never knew existed.”