RICHMOND, Va. – Even though military service seemed inevitable for Staff Sgt. Brandon L. Huntley, he tried to avoid it. Military service was his father’s thing, and Huntley felt strongly about forging his own path. But, as the years after high school passed, he still felt called to serve. At 25-years-old, he joined the Virginia Army National Guard, enlisting as a 19D cavalry scout as a nod to the Buffalo Soldiers who came before him.
“Black History Month means the world to me,” Huntley said. “A Black man was the first to die during the revolution for this country, so Black history is American history.”
Today, Huntley is assigned to the Virginia Army National Guard’s Recruiting and Retention Battalion working with new enlistees in the Recruit Sustainment Program.
“I am really proud of the young people I have assisted with joining our organization,” Huntley said. “Many hailed from disenfranchised communities and never thought they had an opportunity to pay for a higher education.”
Black History Month, for Huntley, is a time to “celebrate the contributions of others,” especially those who paved the way for his military service. Among the Black men and women Huntley mentioned are:
-Sgt. William Harvey Carney, who was born into slavery in 1840 and became the first Black recipient of the Medal of Honor for his actions to protect the American Flag during the Civil War. According to the U.S. Army, Carney joined the Union Army in 1863 and was assigned to the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry Regiment, officially the first Black unit recruited for the Union.
-Lt. Vernon Baker, who, as a second lieutenant serving in Italy during World War II repeatedly engaged and destroyed enemy machine gun emplacements and observation posts and led an advance through enemy mine fields and heavy fire.
-Pfc. Milton Olive, who sacrificed his life during the Vietnam War to protect those of his comrades. While moving through the jungle with four other Soldiers, a grenade was thrown into their midst. Olive, acting quickly, grabbed the grenade and fell on it. He was the first Black recipient of the Medal of Honor from the Vietnam War.
-Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn C. Cashe, whose vehicle was struck by an IED during a nighttime mounted patrol in Iraq in 2005. As the vehicle burned, Cashe extracted six Soldiers and their interpreter from the flames, which resulted in burns on nearly 72 percent of his body. Still, when helicopters came to retrieve the wounded, Cashe refused evacuation until the rest of the wounded were evacuated.
-Pvt. Cathay Williams, who enlisted into the U.S. Army as “William Cathay,” and is the only woman known to have served as a Buffalo Soldier. She’s also the only known woman to serve in the U.S. Army during the Indian Wars.
Leaders like retired Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, who last commanded U.S. Forces in Korea, and Lloyd Austin, the secretary of defense, also made his list, as did his father, who he considers a personal hero and teacher.
“All of these individuals have had to endure many hardships, mostly unjust, to make my time in the U.S. military possible and easier than theirs,” Huntley said.
Huntley credits his father with instilling in him a strong desire to continue educating himself on his culture and community. Black History Month means a lot to Huntley as a Black man. He said celebrating, learning about and recognizing culture and diversity is an important part of strengthening the force.
“It is very important to include everyone from different races, cultures, genders and preferences,” he said. “If diversity is at the forefront, Soldiers can feel comfortable trusting their leaders, peers and subordinates.”
This month, and every month, Huntley encourages education. Race, he says, is a social construct, something humans have created. Now that it’s part of our collective American culture, we must understand it.
“Take the time to educate yourselves and understand why Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans cry so loudly for justice, understanding and accountability,” he said. Those cries, he says, are not about instilling “white guilt,” but an attempt to foster “white understanding.”