FORT RUCKER, Ala. (Feb. 9, 2012) -- Members of the Fort Rucker community gathered at the post exchange Feb. 3 to kick off the annual celebration of Black History Month.

Patrons sampled home-style cuisine while being entertained by live music and an exhibition of gospel dancing, and those in attendance also enjoyed the rare opportunity to meet one of the original Tuskegee Airmen.

"It's an opportunity to educate other people on a culture that's different than their own," said Sgt. 1st Class David Kintz, chief equal opportunity adviser.

The U.S. Army is comprised of people who come from different cultural backgrounds and it is not uncommon for barriers to exist between those who don't understand those differences, according to the EO adviser.

"This gives us an opportunity to come by, learn about a different culture, the history, the sociology and, in a case like today, some of the heroes that belong to that culture," said Kintz.

The event was highlighted by a meet and greet with retired Lt. Col. Herbert E. Carter of the 99th Fighter Squadron, Tuskegee Airmen.

"It is my pleasure to be here at Fort Rucker," said Carter. "I've been here several times over the years and it always reminds me of the first seven years of my career, 1942 through 1949, when I was in the Army Air Corps."

In those days, black Soldiers drafted into the U.S. Army traditionally served as privates, corporals or sergeants in the rear ranks and were very rarely mission officers, according to Carter.

"But these Tuskegee Airmen saw themselves completely differently," he added. "They were determined that they were going to serve America as had been done by their forefathers, but they were going to do it differently. They would do it as officers flying aircraft."

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. decided the quickest way to develop the Army Air Corps was to offer Aviation training to any man or woman 18 years of age with at least two years of college experience, said Carter.

By April 1943, the 99th Pursuit Squadron was in North Africa carrying out close tactical ground support missions destroying enemy trains, automobiles, gun emplacements, field dumps, troops and motorcycles, said Carter.

"Anything that's moving, [we'd] destroy them," he added.

By the time of the Korean War and the conflict in Vietnam, the U.S. Army and Navy had integrated its forces due in no small part to the Tuskegee Airmen, according to Carter.

"The Tuskegee Airmen demonstrated that if you take any group of people and give them the proper training they will do great things," said Carter.

Situated in front of Carter were a group of sixth graders from the Fort Rucker Elementary School. Hunter Lukacz, who drew a "Red Tail," the nickname given to the aircraft flown by the 99th Fighter Squadron, presented the drawing to Carter and thanked him for all he has done for the country. All sixth grade students and teachers signed the drawing.

Dr. Vicki Gilmer, principal of the school, also thanked Carter for the "marvelous service he has provided for our country and for the great example he has set for our students."

The students were abuzz talking about the event, Gilmer said, adding that sixth grade student Kyle Reese said that he enjoyed the part about how Carter met his wife, Mildred, and how they were both pilots. Mildred became the first female pilot to join the state's Civil Air Patrol Squadron in 1942, Gilmer said. The two would fly their planes and meet over Lake Martin.

"It was extraordinary. It's not every day you get to meet a real American hero," said Jade Shiffer, sixth grade student, said.

All 68 students were able to shake hands with Carter and thank him for his visit.

In closing, Carter said the day's celebration was one not only of black history, but of American history.

"Quite often we're asked the question, 'if things were that discriminatory why would you go and risk your life for your country?' And our answer is simple. In spite of her imperfections, this is our country and we love her -- all that she is and will be," said Carter.