FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. - Various black leaders, in and around Fort Leonard Wood, tell their story of why they joined the Army, their experiences in the Army, the importance of diversity in the military, and the importance of Black History Month.

Col. Leslie Smith
Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear School commandant

I was doing drill and ceremony at Frederick Douglass High School and my ROTC instructor told me about joining the National Guard and going to college at the same time. I had never heard of that until my ROTC instructor told me ... and the rest is history.
I tell you that story because we each have a responsibility to reach out to our young people, even if they are not our children. We never know the impact that we can have with our thoughts and ideas.
Our military needs to reflect all aspects of society. We can neither afford to be elitist or separated from the society we serve. Our responsibility is to take the time to mentor all officers, not just those who look like you or have attended the same school.
I think race relations have improved (since I joined the Army), but one must look at life as challenges versus opportunities.
As a captain, I was told by some of my peers that this was the first time they had worked with a squared away "black guy." I could have been offended and not talked to that officer, but instead I took the time to let him understand that we all have desires and dreams, and we all want to do well.
African-American Soldiers, like other Soldiers, have made lasting contributions and the ultimate sacrifice. From Crispus Attucks, to Buffalo Soldiers, to the Tuskegee Airmen, to Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines that serve today, many African-Americans have and continue to contribute to the defense of our nation.
There is a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr., that I think is appropriate to understand why we must learn history and understand what is happening in our communities today. From a letter from a Birmingham, Ala., jail:
"Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects on directly, affects all indirectly."
Celebrating this month celebrates the history of America. The goal is to one day not have Black History Month, because the history, customs and traditions of all people would be captured in the annals of American history.

Command Sgt. Maj. Evy Lacy
43rd Adjutant General Battalion

Initially, I joined the Army to obtain money to complete my bachelor's degree. My father was in World War II; however, we knew very little about today's Army. My major was business administration; therefore, I always wanted to work for a
Fortune 500 company in human relations.
As a human resource management specialist, for the past 23 years, and currently a command sergeant major in an Adjutant General Corps Battalion, I am living my dream.
I consider the Army better than any Fortune 500 company because it allows me the opportunity to contribute to the defense of my nation, something I wouldn't have had the opportunity to do if I were working for Boeing, Microsoft, etc. I am proud to be a part of an organization in which I have progressed to the rank of command sergeant major based on merit and not my gender or the color of my skin.
I have seen the Army change since I joined 26 years ago in terms of race relations and equal opportunities for all Soldiers significantly. When I joined, racism and sexism was prevalent.
We are (now) more proactive as an Army. We educate our Soldiers early and let them know that discrimination based on race, religion, gender, national origin and color is unacceptable.
Commanders and leaders who enforce the Equal Opportunity Program have changed it to the point where if someone feels that way, they are forced to exhibit it in a covert manner because it is simply no longer tolerated. The consequences are loss of credibility and career.
In order to remain the largest and strongest Army in the world, equal opportunity and tolerance is imperative because we must work as a team in order to accomplish the mission. In times of peace and war, the mission suffers if someone is not willing to work with another or protect another because of their gender or the color of their skin.
Black History Month is important for the Army because it allows Soldiers, civilians, and family members of all races to learn about the contributions African-Americans have made throughout our history. It is also a time in which African-American Soldiers can be proud of their heritage and celebrate being a member of a group that has contributed so much to our nation in spite of struggles of inequality.

1st Sgt. (Ret.)
George Sanders
St. Robert mayor

I joined the Army to help protect my country. My father and step-father were drafted, and they helped to defend this country during World War II. I have always wanted to be a Soldier ever since I understood the meaning of freedom.
Not only did I join the U.S. Army, but before that I joined the fight for freedom with Martin Luther King and fought for freedom with and for my people.
During my time in service, the Army was integrated but we still had those who would or could not accept that blacks and whites had to work, eat, sleep and live together. The things that in the past had divided us now have us working together as an Army of one.
I ran for public office because I was told no person of color could be elected to any public office in this country. But I believed you could achieve anything you want in life if you put your mind and soul into it. I wanted to run, because I felt I could make a difference in my city and my community.
Diversity is a national security issue and one that every one of us should be concerned about because it is a force-multiplier for our
Soldiers. There is strength in
Black History Month is important because it teaches people ... and gives black Americans a chance to get to know their heritage and way of life. This is the time we as blacks can educate America ... that we are educators, doctors, lawyers, scientists and inventors.
I would like for young Soldiers of all colors to get to know their neighbors and look beyond the color of their skin. In war, there is no color and prejudice, we are all one and must stand together as one fighting for the freedom of this country.