Troy A. Clay, Soldier Support Institute chief of staff, is an Army veteran and continues to serve as a proud member of the U.S. Army Civilian Corps. He served 29 years in the military in the Finance Corps. He was born and raised in New Jersey and is the youngest of four boys. His father, along with three brothers are all retired police officers. “We are a family that prides itself in service as it is the most important calling one can have in life next to serving God,” Clay said.
Q. What does Black History Month mean to you?
A. Black History month is the month-long observance that celebrates the many accomplishments and achievements of African Americans. For me, it is a reflective time that enriches and revitalizes my spirit. Understanding our history, our struggles, and more importantly our ability to persevere during difficult times, demonstrates not only for African Americans but for all races the many contributions that make our country the greatest country in the world even during adverse times.
Q. What do you know about the civil rights movement?
A. The civil rights movement which mainly took place during the 1950s and 1960s was all about the African American struggle to achieve social justice and equal rights in America. Although slavery had long been abolished it did not bring about the equality that African Americans had long sought. Even with the 14th and 15th Amendments that afforded African Americans equal protection under the law and the right to vote, there were many in this country that prevented these liberties from being realized. With prejudice and violence prevalent, especially in the South, the civil rights movement was an unprecedented mobilization of both black and white Americans to push for equality.
Q. What were some challenges that you or others you may know faced during your time in the military and how has the military evolved since then?
A. During my military career, which began in the mid-80s, the military culture was one that I believe would give me an opportunity to be successful while serving my country. I wasn’t naïve to think that “pockets” of prejudice didn’t exist in the military, but it wasn’t as rampant as it had been in the past. Although frowned upon for leaders and Soldiers to display blatant prejudice or racism, there were still subtle undertones of prejudice throughout the military that were always present. Today’s Army has a zero-tolerance policy for prejudice and racism, but it still exists. Although the Army has its own unique culture, everyone has their own culture that has been shaped over one’s lifetime and sometimes it takes a long time to change culture, even if you are able to change it at all.
Q. How can we continue to promote inclusion and equality?
A. Inclusion and equality are a force multiplier and critical to the success of our Army. Much time and attention are focused on this subject and many programs are in place to promote inclusion and equality. The success of these programs starts at the “top.” Leaders must “walk the walk and talk the talk” in their words and more importantly in their actions. They must instill this in their units and create an organizational culture and atmosphere whereby the unit thrives through inclusion and equality. Soldiers are smart and can easily detect when leaders are giving “lip service” and truly not behind the programs that promote these virtues.
Q. What African American has had an impact on your life and why?
A. As I trace my own individual history, there are people in my lineage that have impacted my life. With my commitment to serving my country as a military officer, the one that has impacted my life the most is my grandfather’s uncle, 2nd Lt. Johnson Chesnut Whittaker. Most people may have never heard of him, but he was the second black cadet to ever attend West Point. Enduring physical harassment and abuse from white cadets, Johnson was brutally attacked by his classmates. Accused of committing these acts on himself, he was charged, court-martialed, and later dismissed from West Point. A 1972 book depicting the story of Johnson Whittaker followed by a television movie in 1994 based on the book redrew attention to Whittaker’s case. On July 25, 1995, President Bill Clinton awarded a posthumous commission to Whittaker's heirs, saying, "We cannot undo history. But today, finally, we can pay tribute to a great American and we can acknowledge a great injustice." Knowing Johnson’s story growing up and then witnessing this terrible injustice corrected, has had a profound impact on my life as a military officer, renewed my faith in the “system” and greatly influenced my military career.