FORT BENNING, Ga. -- During National African American History Month, the Army pauses to specifically honor African-American Soldiers, their contributions to the nation during conflict and their service to the Army as a whole. African-American Soldiers have served with distinction since the Revolutionary War and continue to do so today.

Statistical data from fiscal year 2017 shows a small percent of African-Americans in the Army compared to that of their Caucasian counterparts in official leadership roles. Within the active-duty Army, African-Americans comprise 23 percent of the enlisted force but only 11 percent of the officer corps, and as of 2014, only 6 percent commissioned into combat arms.

It has been an ongoing challenge for the Army, one that was addressed seven years ago by the 38th Chief of Staff of The U.S. Army, retired Gen. Raymond T. Odierno who said, "I don't know what's causing it [underrepresentation of African-Americans in Infantry and Armor], but it's something that weighs heavily on me because I need African-American leaders at all ranks. It's critical to our moving forward and being successful."

Hyannis, Massachusetts, native, Maj. Gen. Gary M. Brito, the commanding general of the Maneuver Center of Excellence and Fort Benning, Georgia, became a part of this small percentage in 1987 when he chose to commission into the Infantry. He most recently made history last year when he became the first African-American commanding general of Fort Benning in the 100-year history of the post.

Although Brito strongly emphasizes the foundation of being a Soldier, whether black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Muslim or Catholic, begins with the Army's values and the oath service members take to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. He also believes that "representation is important across our Army as well."

"Those being led want to see leaders that look like them," Brito said. "This doesn't suggest that Soldiers won't follow a leader of a different race; that is far from the truth. It does however promote opportunity for growth and promotion in our Army."

Of the approximately 70 new officers in his class to commission at Pennsylvania State University in State College, Pennsylvania, Brito was just one of three African-Americans.

"It's somewhat of a boring story," Brito said as he recalled his own journey into the combat arms profession. "I first heard of Army ROTC when I entered college. I didn't know of it, but I joined as an extracurricular activity, and I liked a lot of the field training we did -- rappelling, shooting. But what was most intriguing was the idea of being a future rifle platoon leader and being with combat arms guys. I was motivated by the leadership challenges."

Brito, who was not on an ROTC scholarship, stayed the course.

Now approaching his 32nd year of service, he does not regret that decision and hopes to see more African-Americans and minority leaders in the Army's combat arms officer corps.

"It's important because you will have minority Soldiers in your formations and younger leaders coming up the ranks as well," Brito said. "There are definitely more now than what I saw as a lieutenant, and that's important, and I know that our past and current leadership is tackling this hard through a variety of talent management initiatives and some very candid, open discussions."

He added more innovative recruiting efforts within historically black colleges and universities, as well as within Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps programs, are vital to increasing the numbers of African- Americans within combat arms.

"Just like a professional athlete who had someone he or she looked at as they came up, it's important to have someone to aspire to be and learn from," he said.

Although Brito believes this person does not have to be someone of the same color, he believes it helps.

"Being able to speak to someone you're comfortable with and maybe can relate to is a good thing," he said. "Because of where I am at in my career now, I have an inherent responsibility to be a mentor as well -- a mentor for all."

He also said the Army has a responsibility to continue these types of discussions and to be transparent. He is confident that is happening.

"We have to give this an honest look," Brito said. "If there is an issue, deal with it. I hope for military and civilians alike that we absorb all of what Black History Month and what all of our celebration months afford us. Although we are in 2019 and things have gotten better, and I am a personal example of that, we should never ignore history but continue to learn from it and make the future more positive for those behind us.

"I feel very blessed and honored to be in this position," he continued. "But if someone else of a different ethnicity or gender was in this position, what we have in common is what makes us a profession. We all take an oath and share professional values. The Army is leading our country in promoting equality and providing opportunities. It's extremely important to support and promote diversity for all races, genders and religions because the Soldiers and leaders we have represent the total fiber of America."