By Angie Thorne, Fort Polk Guardian staff writerMarch 4, 2009
Black History Month was celebrated in grand fashion Feb. 24 at Fort Polk's Warrior Community Center. The event began with the National Anthem and an invocation filled with thanks and hope for the future. The Fort Polk Workforce Choir then entertained those attending with a gospel song that got feet tapping, hands clapping and enthusiastic applause.
It can be hard to follow a performance like that, but Brig. Gen. James C. Yarbrough, commanding general, Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Polk, seemed more than willing to try while promising not to sing because "you don't want to hear me carry a tune," he said.
Yarbrough recalled a personal experience with Vernon Baker, a black second lieutenant in World War II, in the 370th Infantry Regiment. Baker was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1997, the nation's highest award for valor, for his valiant actions on a hill in Italy more than 50 years earlier.
"In WWII, white officers were in charge of black units and only white leaders were given the Medal of Honor. It was a travesty," said Yarbrough.
That's why Baker's story moved him. Yarbrough said Baker took a band of 26 men, expendable in the eyes of their officers, and led them in the dark of the night, against all odds, to take a hill entrenched by Germans and Italians. He brought seven men and 19 dog tags back down the hill.
"I was moved by his story to the point that it's hard to talk about it right now. Baker demonstrated for me -- pretty late in my career -- that one man can make a difference and it doesn't matter what color he is or where he comes from. I offer that story to you as commander to say that is the context we should search for as we celebrate Black History Month," said Yarbrough.
Guest speaker at the ceremony was retired Maj. Gen. Fred A. Gorden. During his 34 years of military service, Gorden served in key leadership positions including service as a captain during the Vietnam War; Commandant of Cadets of the United States Military Academy, West Point, N.Y.; commanding general, 25th Infantry Division (Light), Schofield Barracks, Hawaii; Commander, U.S. Army Military District of Washington and Army Chief of Public Affairs in the Pentagon.
In his remarks, Gorden wove a tapestry of living history, the threads of which flowed through his words. He related the story of the Carroll family's struggle for equality and passion to serve their country, from the Mexican expedition under Brig. Gen. John Pershing to the present.
"I think their service amply and aptly represents the service of many African Americans that have served in the history of our armed forces in defense of our country," said Gorden.
Benjamin Carroll, the patriarch of the family, began his service in the Mexican expedition in 1913. Carroll's daughters later married Soldiers, like their father, who served in WWII and Korea and dealt with discrimination by serving honorably. Many of Carroll's sons served as well, up through the Vietnam War and paved the way for the Army of today.
As Gorden related the family history, he quoted Fredrick Douglass, escaped slave and abolitionist, who said, "Once let a black man get upon his person the brass letter U.S.; let him get an eagle on his button; a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States."
"So it was that Benjamin Carroll and his family -- in keeping with our highest patriotic ideals and values -- pledged their lives, fortunes and sacred honor in support of the cherished principles of American citizenship. Through their service to the country, they did an awful lot to combat racism, eliminate barriers and pave the way to a quality of opportunity and treatment for those who followed," said Gorden.
His words brought thundering applause, the audience to their feet and the program to a close.
One Soldier, who enjoyed the history Gorden discussed said, "He is a pretty accomplished man by any measure and it is always good to take a look back at history. He told stories that I had never heard before," said Sgt. Ryan Marshall, Warrior Transition Battalion.
Capt. Kacenia Fitzgerald, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, said she was emotionally moved by what Gorden said.
"It's important to understand where African Americans have come from and I think that we're making great progress."