When I asked my friend, Maj. Gen. Donna Martin, to speak to Task Force Deed last month on the topics of diversity and inclusion, I knew she would pull no punches and speak from the heart.

The first two stories she shared – setting the stage for our entire afternoon – were painful to hear for this career Soldier who has always wanted to believe that every teammate to my right and left felt equally valued and respected.

Donna told us about an emotionally raw letter to the force she wrote in the weeks following George Floyd’s killing at the hands of police in Minneapolis.

“One does not eagerly assume the duty to speak up against their organization’s deficiencies, but I must acknowledge our military’s shortcomings,” she wrote at the time. “There are brief, commonplace, daily instances of racism that come with being one of the few, the first, or the only.”

Donna’s experience – as one of the few Black leaders to command the Maneuver Support Center of Excellence, the first woman to do so, and the only Black woman to hold the position of Commandant of the United States Military Police School – is, I think, emblematic of a larger problem our Army is now facing and tackling.

The second story she shared with our team was truly heartbreaking. Donna recalled being a colonel in brigade command in Germany when she went to the gym one morning and pulled into an “O-6” designated parking spot. A White man in the parking lot approached her to tell her she couldn’t park there, then proceeded to call the military police when she refused to move or explain herself.

“He just couldn’t believe a Black woman could hold that rank,” she explained.

As upsetting as it was to listen to the experiences this friend I so respect has had in this Army I so love, what made just as much of an impression was Donna’s assessment of the future of our force. She believes the Army has finally kicked into “diversity hyperdrive” and that true, systemic change is at hand. Despite these negative experiences, her outlook is overwhelmingly positive. “In 32 years,” she told us, “I don’t believe we’ve ever had this level of fidelity at the highest echelons on such a tough topic.”

Donna’s presentation gave me great hope – and great motivation to ensure that Task Force Deed and all of our Army is truly committed to fostering an environment that promotes and practices diversity, equity and inclusion.

The stakes are so high. If we are truly to be the “People First” organization we claim, then we absolutely must live up to the ideal of ensuring that our culture is built on trust and is accepting of the experiences, cultures, characteristics and backgrounds that each Soldier and Civilian brings to the table. Not only is it the right thing to do, our readiness depends on it. Put simply: only cohesive, adaptive and diverse teams can achieve all that our force and nation ask of them in this increasingly complex world.

I see much concrete change at hand, a lot of which will be gaining traction throughout 2021.

Project Inclusion, the Army’s five-year strategic diversity plan, is a holistic effort to promote diversity, equity and inclusion. As part of the initiative, the Army has developed plans to implement diversity and inclusion into military education programs. We are creating a senior mentorship program at various universities by connecting a senior faculty member to Army ROTC programs. We’re strengthening efforts to recruit students from historically black or minority academic institutions to become involved in Army research as Army civilian employees. Official photos and gender and race details have even been eliminated from promotion boards. And the Army – with Donna Martin a key part of the effort – is in the midst of evaluating racial disparities in our military justice system.

I am passionate that First Army be an organization where people love to come to work, where teams are cohesive and diverse in both background and thought, and where everyone has the opportunity to excel as far as his or her character and talents will take them.

Leaders and teammates, I cannot say it enough: Diverse teams bring diverse solutions to complex problems. As we tackle the challenging and unique mission of enabling more than half of this nation’s Army, we need that kind of thinking and those kinds of results. We must continue to attack corrosive elements within our force, look inward and see the effect they have on the fabric of our force. Racism has no place in our Army.

I leave you with this: As I said up top, Donna’s story was hard to hear at times, but her experience is not unique. A recently released DoD survey found that nearly a third of black U.S. military service members reported experiencing racial discrimination, harassment or both during a 12-month period. That is unacceptable.

This nation was founded on the declaration of an ideal that all are created equal and endowed with unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Our Constitution seeks a more perfect union, and we have made much progress over some 250 years.

But Donna’s story, the recent DoD survey and the experiences of some of our own teammates illustrate that significant inequalities still exist. It is our duty to one another – to our brothers and sisters in arms – to admit and accept that reality then commit ourselves to positively changing the future of our force.

People First! First In Deed! Earn the A!