The U.S. Army of today is very different from the Army of past generations. As an Army, we have made great strides towards diversity and inclusion for all individuals who have volunteered to serve, which is something that Lt. Col. Jermon Tillman can appreciate first hand.
Lt. Col. Jermon Tillman, deputy support operations officer, 1st Theater Sustainment Command, enlisted in 1991 after watching the start of the ground war in Iraq on TV. He enlisted because he knew that he had to do something.
“I went to the recruiting office the next day, with about 300 others, ready to serve,” Tillman said.
Tillman enlisted as an accounting and material specialist. During his enlisted career, he earned the rank of sergeant first class and was a senior drill sergeant and senior drill sergeant leader at basic training and at drill sergeant school.
On February 19, 2003, Tillman earned his commission through Officer Candidate School, at Fort Benning, Georgia, and was commissioned as a field artillery officer.
While serving as an artilleryman, Tillman conducted kinetic operations in the Diyala Province, Iraq, during Operation Turki Bowl in 2006 and in the Battle of Baqubah in 2007.
During the Captains Career Course he transitioned to the Transportation Corps and eventually the Logistics Corps. For the last 12 years, Tillman served as a multi-functional logistician. He celebrated 30 years of service on March 26, 2021.
Tillman continues a family legacy of service that has spanned 100 years. While his career seems pretty typical for a Soldier today, not all of those who served in his lineage were able to have the experiences and opportunities that were available to him.
In fact, in the past, African American veterans weren’t always treated with the same amount of respect rendered their white counterparts. Some returned from liberating Europe in the World Wars to discrimination at home. Black veterans weren’t always revered or welcomed back in their hometowns, despite wearing a service uniform decorated with awards for valor.
Tillman can trace part of his lineage all the way back to ancestors who came to America from England where they were farmers. They were sold into slavery.
Tillman explained, “A lot of African Americans do not know their history because of slavery.”
In the late 1800s, his ancestors were “owned” by then Governor Benjamin Tillman of South Carolina. They worked on farms located on what is now the Clemson University campus.
Tillman’s family escaped and were chased to Florida, then into Mobile, Alabama. The slave owner’s brother, who had been chasing them, re-enslaved the family in Mobile in an area named Tillman’s Corner.
Several family members escaped again into east Texas, outside of Dallas. This is where they eventually became free. Some of them went on to create a continuing legacy of Army service to the nation where their ancestors were once enslaved.
The first relative to serve in the Army was Tillman’s great grandfather Pfc. Wade Tillman who served in World War I in the Quartermaster Corps. It was Wade’s parents who successfully escaped slavery.
The military wasn’t racially integrated yet, so Wade Tillman followed the French. He even wore a French uniform, but served as an American Soldier. He survived the war, returned to east Texas, and used the earliest version of the G.I. Bill to get an education.
Tillman said, “The early 1920 census showed Wade Tillman was one of the wealthiest Black land owners in eastern Texas. He went on to work as a supervisor, and then a manager for the railroad being built in Texas.”
Tillman explained, “During World War II, The Red Ball Express was the major logistical movement method. Most African Americans were relegated to service support roles and non-combat arms jobs. My grandfather, Pvt. 2 John Young, was very proud to have worked in the Quartermaster Corps on the Red Ball Express.”
The Red Ball Express was an enormous truck convoy system created in 1944 to supply Allied forces moving quickly through Europe after breaking out from the D-Day beaches in Normandy. Some 28 divisions were advancing across France and Belgium, each ordinarily requiring 700-750 tons a day. About 75 percent of the Soldiers who drove in the convoy were African American.
Tillman’s grandfather passed away a few years ago, and he remembers, “The stories he told about World War II were really descriptive, like something out of the movie, Saving Private Ryan.”
Tillman said that what bothered his grandfather the most, “was not being able to wear his uniform or be in a parade.” He described that Black veterans were sometimes threated by the local klan for wearing their uniforms. This was 1940, and he said there were signs in Texas stating that Black people needed to “be gone,” by sunset, unless they had a “pass” to travel after dark.
“Young used the next version of the G.I. Bill to get an education, and was very successful in his life,” Tillman said. This was the late 1950s.
Tillman’s maternal grandfather, Pfc. Hardy Lee Robinson Jr., was his first relative to serve in a racially integrated Army. He served as an airborne medic.
Tillman said, “There was a lot of resistance in integrating the Army.” However, in 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed an executive order establishing the President's Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services, committing the government to integrating the segregated military.
He died in 2006 while Tillman was serving in Iraq. “He had the best saying,” Tillman shared. “He said that war was the ultimate integrator.”
Tillman’s father, Spc. Joe Tillman, served with the 266th Composite Service Battalion during the Vietnam War, and made a career in the Army. He shared memories with him about the war last time they saw each other.
Despite being fully integrated, Tillman said that his father shared that some white soldiers didn’t like their “soul music or afros,” while in Vietnam.
The Civil Rights Act was signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, during the Vietnam War and the height of the civil rights movement. This Act outlawed segregation in schools, theaters, restaurants, hotels, and banned discrimination in employment. A year later Johnson signed The Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Act prohibits racial discrimination in voting.
Designed to enforce the voting rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, the Act secured the right to vote for racial minorities throughout the country, especially in the South. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the Act is considered to be the most effective piece of federal civil rights legislation ever enacted in the country.
Tillman said that none of his veteran family members ever spoke despairingly about the Army. With so many of his direct family members who served in facets of logistics during World Wars I and II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, he proudly dons his logistics insignia.
“Collectively, we’ve served more than 100 consecutive years,” Tillman proudly said.
“I’m absolutely indebted to my family members who’ve sacrificed so much to ensure I could serve in an integrated Army, and could serve with the fairness and equity granted others,” Tillman said.
Tillman said that growing up on Army installations, “I was sheltered from much of the racism in America.” He is proud of his family’s legacy of Army service as he celebrates 30 years.