MADIGAN ARMY MEDICAL CENTER, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. – Juneteenth has become a national holiday. Before its official recognition this year, it had already been adopted as an observance in 46 states and the District of Columbia; it has been celebrated in Texas since 1866. Madigan Army Medical Center had a special observance of the holiday and its meaning.
On the observed holiday of June 18, the Graduate Medical Education Internal Medicine residency program coordinated an event that featured a panel of former Service Members discussing their unique experiences in the military.
Retired Marine Capt. Carl Curry and his brother, Larry Curry, who was enlisted in the Air Force from 1968 to 1972, joined the discussion with their nephew and son, respectively, Capt. (Dr.) Shawn Curry, Madigan’s Internal Medicine chief resident. The elder gentlemen joined remotely as Dr. Curry led the conversation from on stage in Letterman Auditorium.
”This was an excellent start to what I hope is a long tradition, not only at Madigan but across the [Department of Defense]. The underlying theme of testing every single person with love and respect regardless of age, race, gender or rank is a simple message that is one that can never be overstated,” said Dr. Curry.
The event had been in the works for some time before the afternoon announcement came the day before that the holiday had been made official and, therefore, a day off. Though the organizers were concerned that the day off would result in poor attendance for the event, it proved popular anyway. It was originally scheduled to take place in a conference room but was moved to the auditorium to accommodate the level of interest it garnered. It was well attended, given pandemic distancing restrictions, and was also viewed by attendees over Zoom.
The Curry brothers spoke of their youth in a more segregated America. Originally from a small town in the Midwest, Carl, the older brother, entered the military in the 1950’s to expand his career opportunities and only planned to stay a short while. Those plans turned into a 20-plus year career in the Marine Corps as he traveled the country and worked in a number of jobs. His younger brother Larry worked in structural aircraft maintenance and served in the Vietnam War.
Their hometown lacked racial diversity and they were capable of contrasting their experiences as African American men in the military and in their civilian lives. Both men expressed a sentiment that the military took good care of them as individuals.
One audience member, Dr. Michael Stein, an internal medicine physician at Madigan, said the event was reaffirming of what he’d heard from a friend who served during a similar time period about feeling more discrimination out of uniform than in.
“They both spoke about military as family. A lot of stuff would happen with different opinions or discontent among people when they were in their downtime. But, when people were working together, working on a mission, they were more like a family,” said Stein.
Another attendee at the event, Lt. Col. (Dr.) Christopher Colombo, the director of Virtual Health and Telecritical Care at Madigan, was pleased to hear their services experiences were so positive.
“The military in general, and their units in specific, held up their end of treating these gentlemen with dignity and respect,” said Colombo. That is not the universal experience of African American Soldiers in the two decades following President Truman’s executive order to integrate, but it was heartening to hear that the military in these gentlemen’s lives lived up to their regulations.”
Stein was excited to attend the event and came in on his day off to hear the presentation. He was impressed by Madigan hosting the event and felt the personal connection made it very genuine and authentic.
“It was family members of our chief resident, a real connection to Madigan itself through their son and nephew,” he said. “I just thought it was wonderful to have speakers that were connected to somebody here.”
The audience was engaged and participated with questions, both in-person and online, that encompassed a range of personal, professional and societal topics and perspectives.
How did you talk about race/diversity with subordinates of other cultures/races during a time of racial turmoil in America; did you ever have any experiences where you felt you did not get a promotion or opportunity due to your race; and how did healthcare professionals earn your trust, were all submitted questions discussed by the panelists.
The Curry brothers conferred their approach to their experiences, leaving Stein with a distinct impression of them as individuals.
“I think both of them, their characters are just resilient, leadership people. They weren’t going to let problems affect them too much, they were going to continue to serve and lead,” he said.
Stein saw where the men are now as a place of viewing others with an open mind and compassionate spirit.
“They spoke of imagining yourself being in someone else’s shoes and understanding where that person's coming from,” he said.
One of the event’s organizers and a member of the IM Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee shared a quote from the speakers that resonated with her.
“Diversity is light,” repeated Capt. Katie Miller, a physician doing her residency at Madigan.
Coordinated by the GME IM residency program’s DEI committee and sponsored by Madigan’s new DEI committee, this presentation will be followed by others designed to illuminate topics and people not traditionally highlighted.
“Our goal with the Juneteenth panel was to bring visibility and awareness to how the racial climate has evolved in the military since the 1950’s through prior Service Members’ lived experiences, and I believe that we met that goal. With Juneteenth now a federally-recognized holiday, I believe this will allow our culture and climate to continue to evolve with increased emphasis on fostering diversity, equity and inclusion,” noted Miller.
Colombo saw the selection of Juneteenth as an intentional provocation of thought and effort to close the gap between our ideals and the lived reality of many people in our society. He pointed out that the holiday could have been the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation or the ratification of the 13th Amendment which outlawed slavery.
“Instead the day reflects an event which brought the gap of law/policy/regulation closer to reality, and is an important reminder of the work which remains to fully realize the promise of the United States,” noted Colombo. “It was heartening that these men retold the role the military had in shrinking that gap, while humbling and a bit harrowing that they perceive our current time as filled with some of the worst examples of racism of their lifetime.”
This event points to a future of increased willingness to openly address issues of our collective past and present, and the audience was so involved that there were more questions than time allotted to answer them.
“I thought it was great that Madigan put together this program for Juneteenth,” shared Stein. “That Madigan would host these veterans on that day, and in Letterman, was all very symbolically positive for me.”
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