Soldiers present 101st black history at local school
February 28, 2013
FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. - The Clarksville, Tenn., area is a community that is like an extension of a military base. As you leave the premises of Fort Campbell, you are immediately emerged into the city, but many things look familiar.
While driving through the city on Fort Campbell Boulevard, it's hard to miss the multitude of flags hanging from many buildings, proudly displaying the Screaming Eagles emblem of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), Fort Campbell's only Division.
To educate this local community, a group of soldiers from the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) visited and taught three classes of 5th graders at Clarksville's Liberty Elementary School Feb. 22 about famous and heroic black soldiers who have served in the 101st. The school has been assigned to the brigade through the Adopt a School Program.
"I thought it went well. The students enjoyed it," said Melinda Riggins, the school's librarian. "A lot of their families are involved in the military, but they like that contact with military people, so I think it went very well."
February has been designated as Black History Month by every U.S. president since Gerald Ford did so in 1976 to celebrate African-American achievements that were often overlooked.
"It was great to get a chance to talk to some young, inspiring minds and educate them - not just on military history, but African-American military history," said Capt. Duwayne Ruffin, the Rear-Detachment commander of the 626th Brigade Support Battalion and the speaker of the presentation.
The students sounded very surprised to hear that rock and roll legend Jimi Hendrix once served in the ranks of the 101st, then known as Pvt. James Hendrix, and that he began his music-playing career in Clarksville and Nashville, Tenn., after being stationed at Fort Campbell.
"They were pretty receptive because we had some African-Americans who went off and did famous things," said Ruffin. "Everybody was obviously excited about Jimi Hendrix and Dancing with the Stars winner Cpl. (J.R.) Martinez."
Although Hendrix did not perform well during his short time in the Army, he soon found his true calling as a musician and later evolved into a pop culture icon. He was considered by many, including Rolling Stones Magazine, as the greatest guitarist of all time.
Members of the school faculty also learned a thing or two.
"I myself did not know about Jimi Hendrix, so that was really interesting," Riggins said after the presentation.
They also seemed very interested to hear about Cpl. J.R. Martinez, a half black, half Hispanic soldier of the 101st who suffered severe burns on about 40 percent of his body while serving in Iraq in 2003.
While he was recovering in the Brooke Army Medical Center, undergoing 33 surgeries including skin grafts and cosmetic surgeries, his optimism inspired other burn patients and in later years, he spoke to many other audiences as an inspirational speaker.
He went on to be an actor on the TV drama "All My Children" and winner of ABC Network's "Dancing with the Stars" in Season 13.
Riggins said that soldiers such as Martinez and other successful and resilient members of the 101st Airborne Division have a very positive influence on her students.
"Some of their parents, fathers especially, are deployed or may not even have a large role in their lives," she said. "I think a positive male role model is good for them; somebody who is successful and really doing something with their life."
Another influential black soldier from Fort Campbell was Gen. Colin Powell, who commanded the Division's 2nd Brigade in 1976 and later went on to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest ranking title in the U.S. military, and then served as President George W. Bush's secretary of state for several years.
As a military-focused history presentation, the lesson coincided well with what the students have been learning about.
"With them talking right now about World War II, it definitely has a big military idea in their mind," Riggins said.
The students also learned about the Division's two African-American Medal of Honor recipients, Sgt. 1st Class Webster Anderson, an artilleryman from 2nd Battalion, 320th Field Artillery Regiment and Staff Sgt. Clifford Sims, an infantryman assigned to the Division's 2nd Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment - both served in Vietnam.
Ruffin said that teaching the students about the black history of the 101st Airborne Division was an important opportunity to strengthen the ongoing relationship between the unit and the school.
"The relationship we have with the Montgomery and Christian County schools definitely needs to continue to be enhanced because we get our resources from them and vice versa, so we have to continue to give back," said Ruffin.
At the end of the presentation, a student said that he was inspired to join the Army when he grows up. If he ever becomes a Screaming Eagle, he will be provided the opportunity to do great things in life and inspire others as well.