ARLINGTON, Va. – When Army Capt. Whennah Andrews submitted a nine-minute video in 2016 to the Army’s Uniform Policy Board to change the Army’s official regulation on grooming and appearance standards to include locked hair, or locks, she had one thing in mind: helping people.
“I was able to recognize that me, and so many other African Americans, were being affected by the regulation that wouldn’t allow us to wear our hair in locks,” said Andrews. “Also, having to wear your hair in a bun, or have it cut to a certain length, could cause health problems due to strain and tension.”
Andrews, now at the National Guard Bureau as the executive officer of the Army National Guard’s Office of the Chief Surgeon, focuses on Army Guard health care policy. Her presentation laid the groundwork for changes to the policy on authorized hairstyles that went into effect in 2017.
“I appreciate that there’s more flexibility with how we can wear our hair,” said Andrews. “Now, women don’t have to worry about possibly getting traction alopecia due to the tension of wearing their hair in a bun. Simple changes like that contribute to overall health and wellness.”
The change also reflected the importance of diversity.
“The change is important in terms of representation,” Andrews said. “Being an African American in the medical field, I thought that making this change was important, and I was in a position to do so.”
She said her work to make this change reminded her of her time as an undergraduate at Howard University. There, she studied health science with the goal to work in public health because she is passionate about making a difference in the community.
“I always had an interest in health care and global health,” Andrews said. “I have a love for people, and I wanted to impact people’s lives in a remarkable way through health care.”
While attending Howard, she met an Army Medical Department recruiter, and an opportunity to do just that presented itself.
“I always thought about the Army as just strictly infantry,” said Andrews. “I wasn’t even aware that there was a medical piece. I learned that I could travel to various countries and work with their local population while administering health services.”
Andrews said the increasing diversity of the National Guard allows African American service members to be represented and have their voices heard. She is one of many National Guard members whose work has influenced Black health and wellness – the theme and focus of this year’s Black History Month celebrations.
Senior Master Sgt. Rodric Riley, the executive assistant to NGB’s Joint Surgeon General, said he has seen that change in representation being noticed by others during his 17-year career.
One of those times was while transporting a patient to Kentucky as a medic with an aeromedical evacuation crew.
“To see the response of those who look like me and those who don’t look like me, seeing me in my element working, it opened my eyes,” said Riley. “Being asked how I got to do this job, or people realizing that I am working in this field, it puts it into perspective for me that as an African American, I am part of the diversity of the military.”
Riley added that for him, diversity also plays an important role in the questions asked by health care providers.
“Just navigating the medical process can be very challenging, even for me,” Riley said. “Having your primary care provider account for your race – asking questions that relate to your race – it makes you feel like a person and not just another patient. Some people don’t like it, but having those questions geared that way is helpful.”
That’s also why ensuring that representation in the medical field is important, he said.
“Specifically, because of the optics,” said Riley. “It’s good when people can identify with people working in these types of harder-to-get positions.”
Army Lt. Col. Jaime Cook, an assistant project director with the Army Study to Assess Risk and Resilience in service members, agreed that diversity in the medical field has comforted patients and members of the medical service.
“For people of color, having diversity in health care allows the provider to see the patient as a person,” said Cook. “It becomes a bit more holistic. I think it helps because it helps the patient to open up a little bit more and get the care they deserve.”
With 24 years of military experience – 15 in the Army National Guard – Cook said she has seen more African American service members become comfortable with seeking medical attention, a factor she attributes to being able to connect with their provider.
“We had to figure out a way to connect with people in a one-on-one type of relationship,” Cook said. “Increasing the amount of health care providers of color helps us to reach out and do that. When I look at the number of African Americans in the military medical field now, it’s comforting to see that we have that connection with patients who look like us.”
According to the Department of Defense’s 2020 demographics profile of the military community, minorities account for 27.5% of Reserve and Guard members, with 15.9% of those identifying as Black or African American. Cook believes those numbers will continue to rise as more people see the current amount of representation in the military.
“I definitely see more diversity in the medical field as a whole,” said Cook. “I think other people see the diversity in certain positions changing, and then they begin to do as they see being done. I look forward to the younger people joining, making the military more diverse and representing people of color.”