Black service members recall experiences in U.S. military

KIDD Keynotes

A handful of black service members, only one active, told their stories of serving in the U.S. military on Friday, and they were mostly happy ones.

“A lot of the people coming up here had some horrible stories. I never had horrible stories,” said Leroy Jenkins, a U.S. naval veteran who served on the USS KIDD in the 1950s. “They treated me like a man.”

“I have nothing but wonderful things to say about my 20 years in the military” said Olena Arrington, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force. “I was never sexually harassed or racially mistreated by the military.”

They served on a panel put on by the USS KIDD Veterans Memorial & Museum in Baton Rouge. Known as “KIDD Keynotes,” Friday’s talk coincided with Black History Month.

Alejandra “Alex” Juan, executive director of the USS KIDD, said she wants avenues for veterans of all stripes to tell their stories.

“There is no need in this day and age for any story to have to be told in hushed tones,” said Juan, who was promoted to the museum’s director in December.

The only veteran who said Friday that he experienced personal discrimination because of the color of his skin was Herman Graham, who is 85 years old.

“I’m so glad that you did not have to experience the prejudice that I did,” Graham said.

Graham joined the military in 1948, the same year that then-President Harry Truman ordered the military to integrate racially. He was one of two black members of his segregated Air Force unit when it was merged with an all white unit.

“Blacks didn’t want to be integrated,” he said. “Whites didn’t want to be integrated.”

Graham stayed only a year in the Air Force. He was enrolled at Southern University in Baton Rouge when he was summoned back to service a couple of years later during the Korean War, this time serving in the Army. He eventually retired in 1978, with 21 years total of service.

He said it took two years for the military to integrate and it still has issues but is vastly improved. He said back in the day he would have never dreamed of hearing a talk like he heard Friday.

Tim NesSmith, ship superintendent for the USS KIDD, said the battleship initially consigned black sailors to service roles such as working in the kitchen. He said it’s important to remember history.

“If we forget about this, we could go back to this,” NesSmith said.

Most of Friday’s speakers said military service was not their initial plan.

Joe Jenkins was drafted into the Army and served two years in the Vietnam War. Military service had never occurred to him.

“I was 24 years old and having a lot of fun,” Jenkins said. “I mean having a lot of fun.”

When he was in Vietnam, he was one of many black service members.

“We were all equal,” he said. “We all bled the same color.”

While he said he wasn’t discriminated against, Leroy Jenkins remembers how disconcerting it was when he walked onto the KIDD, one of a handful of black sailors serving with hundreds of white sailors.

“When I first got there,” he recalled, “I looked around and said, ‘Hey, wait a minute.’ ”