VISTA, Calif. -- Sporting a crimson "Red Tails" ball cap, 97-year-old Robert Friend delivered a powerful message to a diverse audience of students, JROTC cadets and teachers at Vista High School here.
"We're all the same," Friend said. "We're all American."
Friend, a veteran of World War II, is one of the last surviving members of the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of highly successful African-American pilots who flew both bomber and fighter missions during the war.
Earlier this month, as part of Army Recruiting Command's outreach program, Friend visited with high school students here to share stories of and dispel misconceptions about the wartime experiences of Tuskegee Airmen.
One such misconception, Friend said, is that all servicemen who trained in Tuskegee, Alabama, were African-American.
"Anybody that was not white had to be trained at Tuskegee," Friend said.
The retired lieutenant colonel confirmed that Chinese, Haitian, Native-American and Asian Soldiers trained at Tuskegee.
AIMING FOR THE SKY
During the early years of his education at Lincoln College in Pennsylvania, in the late 1930s, Friend learned he could train as a civilian pilot. In 1939, he enrolled in the U.S. government-sponsored Civilian Pilot Training Program. Then, after completing his degree, Friend learned the Army was recruiting African-American pilots.
Having already earned a civilian pilot's license while in college, and after receiving appropriate training from the military, the Army assigned Friend to the 301st Fighter Squadron, part of the 332nd Fighter Group.
As a United States Army Air Corps pilot during WWII, Friend flew 142 combat missions in aircraft such as the P-47 Thunderbolt and P-51 Mustang fighter planes. He also served during the Korean and Vietnam wars.
Staff Sgt. Kimberly Smith, a recruiter with the San Marcos Recruiting Company, said Friend's presentation resonated with her, particularly considering the community where she performs recruiting duties for the Army.
In the city of Vista, a northern suburb of San Diego, she said minority students make up 79 percent of the student body at VHS. And according to U.S. News & World Report, 63 percent of those students are economically-disadvantaged.
Friend's message of diversity, equality and opportunity, Smith said, "really gives the kids hope and insight on what their career will be. It lets them know they can truly do whatever it is they want to do as long as they put their minds to it and are motivated to do it."
The students, more than eight decades and three generations younger than Friend, listened attentively as he told stories about World War II, his time as a Tuskegee Airman, and how he proved himself in the face of misconceptions about the ability of African-Americans to serve in the military.
"Looking at my school, the majority of us are minorities, so it definitely had an impact in that sort of way," said VHS senior Jacob Hernandez, a JROTC cadet. "I know a lot of minorities feel un-included, and Lt. Col. Friend contradicts that.
"It was great to see this WWII veteran, knowing that there aren't many of them left alive," Hernandez said. "Just his attitude towards his whole situation -- it was totally positive. It showed me that even through all of the challenges I know he went through and I was learning about in school ... he was still coming out with a positive attitude."
STRENGTH IN DIVERSITY
Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Snow, commander of U. S. Army Recruiting Command, said Army recruiters can help meet the Army's end strength goals by continually pushing for diversity. An Army that reflects the growing diversity of the nation, he said, is also a stronger Army.
Diverse communities such as Vista, he said, represent the diverse population the Army looks to recruit.
"The misconception is people just don't understand what we're looking for, but we're a very diverse Army," Snow said. "We want the Army to look like the American public."
Friend said that today's military has made significant leaps towards inclusion since the armed services implemented racial integration.
Creating diversity has long been a priority for the Army, and the service has pushed new initiatives to further its objectives, including special training and educational programs. The effects of that effort are visible.
"Today, everybody gets equal opportunities, and that's the biggest difference," Friend said. "You make (opportunities) yourself. Don't wait for anybody to make an opportunity. You create the opportunities."
Smith said she and fellow recruiter Staff Sgt. Wade Cross visit VHS three to four times a week to connect with students. She said many of the students do not have the means to afford college, and they know joining the Army can provide opportunities for their future careers.
Hernandez, for instance, said he plans to enlist in the Army, attend college, and eventually commission as an officer. He said Friend's presentation helped reaffirm that decision.
"I definitely know that enlisting is going to help me out as far as setting up my future," Hernandez said.