SEMBACH, Germany -- Each February during African American History Month, the U.S. Army reflects upon and celebrates the tremendous contributions of African Americans.
For almost three decades, Col. Andre Pippen has been proud to count himself as part of the nearly 200,000 African Americans who serve in the active Army, National Guard, and Army Reserve.
The theme of African American History Month for 2021 is “The Black Family: Representation, Identity and Diversity.” The theme highlights the African American family, leadership and service.
Pippen, who is currently serving as the chief of staff for Regional Health Command Europe, grew up in Bessemer, Ala. as the youngest of eight children.
“We didn’t have a lot but we had each other,” Pippen said. “My mother and grandmother loved us very much. They made an honest living and taught us the importance of taking care of your family.”
Pippen was primarily raised by his mother and grandmother, and says that his mother was strict, but she motivated them to always do the right thing.
“When a lot of my friends were out getting into trouble after dark, my mom had a strict policy that we had to be inside when the street lights turned on. I hated that at the time, but now I’m so grateful that she kept me focused on school and my other responsibilities.”
That discipline set the foundation for success in sports and in school, Pippen says. That success earned him an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he was not only faced with the challenge of the West Point curriculum, but he played Division I football.
But after three years at West Point, he faced his first setback.
“I was focusing more on football than academics and I had to leave West Point,” said Pippen. “I was scared to call my mom to tell her I was coming home. I felt like I had let the family down, but my mom just kept encouraging me, and reminding me to stay focused on my goals.”
Pippen said that setback was a crucial turning point in his life that enabled him to re-focus his goals and priorities.
“I couldn’t let what happened to me at West Point be a stumbling block,” he said. “Thanks to the support of my mom and my family, I was able to turn it into a stepping stone. I learned a valuable life lesson - When you fail, you learn from that. Don’t let that failure be the defining moment of your life.”
With renewed determination, Pippen enrolled at the University of Alabama-Birmingham in the Reserve Officer Training Corps, and got back to work. He graduated from Birmingham as a distinguished military graduate in 1991, and was commissioned into the Army as a Medical Service Corps officer.
“My goal originally was to stay long enough to fulfill my commitment, but here I am 30 years later and it’s been a fulfilling career,” he said.
Pippen, who plans to retire later this year, is appreciative of the leadership opportunities afforded to him over his career.
“When I look back on these last thirty years, there are still some experiences that stand out to me,” said Pippen. “I was a medical platoon leader in the 7th Infantry Division, a company commander in the 101st Airborne Division, and a battalion commander in the 82nd Airborne Division. I grew and learned a lot as a leader in all three of these positions. My career hasn’t been perfect, but overall it’s been an extraordinary experience. I think I’ve been able to have a big impact on people’s lives and vice versa and I’m thankful for that.”
African Americans have defended the nation since the Revolutionary War and have built a legacy of courage and professionalism by serving the U.S. Army with great honor and distinction.
Pippen says that being an African American, he often faced unique challenges as an Army officer and a commander.
“There were many times that I didn’t look like any of my peers or superior officers, so I felt like I had to work extra hard to make sure that I represented people of color with honor,” he said. “I sought out the challenging jobs and took advantage of the training opportunities afforded to me, and I was fortunate to have had some success in my career.”
As Pippen prepares for retirement, he offered some advice for Soldiers just starting their Army career.
“Don’t be afraid to seek out mentors, no matter who they look like,” said Pippen. “Find people who have the experience that you can learn from. Don’t be afraid to ‘check out’ different leadership styles. Some might work for you, some might not, but always look for ways to improve as an Army leader and as a person.”
Pippen says that he’s proud of his African American heritage and proud to have served.
“This month is a time to reflect on the impact and contributions that African Americans have and continue to have on our nation,” said Pippen. “The Army has made a lot of progress in regards to inclusion, however, we still have more work to do. It is always important to judge Soldiers on who they are and what they do versus their rank, race, creed, color, gender or religious affiliation. I have always been conscious of this reality and made an effort to be fair across the board.”
Pippen added that Soldiers should take full advantage of the opportunities available in the Army.
“I’ve loved it so much,” he said. “I’ve seen the world. I’m better educated than when I started. This has been my life. It’s been a huge part of me and it’s been fun. I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything in the world.”
To learn more about African American History Month, visit https://www.army.mil/africanamericans/.