UNDISCLOSED LOCATION SOUTHWEST ASIA -- --
Black History Month at the 332nd AEW is a special observance considering the wing traces its roots to WWII and specifically to the Tuskegee Airmen who distinguished themselves in combat.
U.S. Air Force Capt. Latetia Bland, who is deployed to the 332nd says she learned of their sacrifices as a young girl, long before she donned the uniform.
“I didn’t grow up with a silver spoon in my mouth but I grew up in a family that, thankfully, talked a lot about black history.” she said. “It made us feel empowered”.”
For her, stepping into the wing pioneered by the Tuskegee Airman was a powerful experience.
“Getting here I felt like I was almost walking on consecrated ground,” she said. “Like I’m ingesting this power from these Tuskegee Airmen.”
She says their service provides a lasting legacy, one she says is indelible still today.
“It says, ‘you can persevere, you can do these things, you can make it no matter what the obstacle is—jump over it, go through it, go under it, go beside it—these obstacles will not define you; they will not break you.’”
Even as they faced danger and adversity on the war front they also fought another war—the one back home, she added.
“It was a double victory, not only were they fighting a war—actively fighting a war—but they were fighting a war in their own country,” she said referring to the racial discrimination they faced as a segregated unit as well as the civil rights struggle they faced in the United States.
That struggle birthed one of the most historic figures in the civil rights era: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Bland remembers his peaceful yet powerful approach in the 1950s and 60s.
“We are going to do this non-violently, but we are going to do it and it’s uncomfortable and it’s painful and it hurts and it’s going to take a while to heal, but nonetheless at the end of all of this pain we are going to fly,” she said.
Just after MLK Day she says she listened to one of his less famous speeches, one that shapes her thinking today where he said that asking a bootless man to pick himself up by his boot straps is a cruel jest.
“For a long time, just from a lack of understanding, we often didn’t acknowledge that people are bootless,” she said. “Over the past year we’ve acknowledged that people are bootless and when I reflected on that speech that’s what I heard from it; we are going to acknowledge the problems so that we can finally fix them.”
In her current role as the wing sexual assault prevention and response coordinator, she says this direct approach is working now and that the culture at the 332nd AEW is healthy.
“We are such a family that we will step in,” she said. “People’s first response is that I’m going to get in there I’m going to directly handle it. I’m going to make sure that my comrade, my buddy, my soldier is good and I’m going to check people when they say something inappropriate or do something inappropriate and that we are going to practice tough love, hold one another accountable and be a better family because of it”