While more than 61,000 Americans had been killed in the Vietnam War by 1974, Georgia Eaves, a mother of three from the District, chose to enlist in the United States Army.
At the time, an Army recruiter promised Eaves a chance to become a pilot and a better government check, leading Eaves to follow a friend into a recruitment center where she signed on the dotted line.
“My girlfriend didn’t pass the test but I did,” Eaves recalled.
Despite Eaves failing to qualify as a pilot because of her eye exam, she still got a chance to soar as one of the first 100 women to qualify as a paratrooper.
Her first jump, however, came with complications.
“During the landing, I got stuck in a tree,” she said.
Now 74, Eaves remains involved in veteran groups and said she has no regrets about enlisting in the military.
“My parents had very limited opportunities and the military was my key to a better life,” she said. “I was ‘spit shine’ as a soldier. I wore my uniform with pride because I wasn’t interested in breaking tobacco or picking cotton. There weren’t any other options for Blacks.”
In the 15 years Eaves spent in the Army, she proceeded up the ranks, eventually being promoted to captain.
But while her story had a positive ending, many of the challenges once faced by people of color interested in serving their country have changed very little decades later. While 41 percent of those enlisted count as people of color, minority officers remain disproportionately underrepresented among the higher ranks.
According to a 2017 poll released by the Pentagon, 71 percent of young people count as ineligible to enlist because they’re obese, do not have a high school diploma or have a criminal record. The same poll shows that only 14 percent of the respondents ages 16-24 said they were likely, if allowed, to join.
“I wasn’t going to college because I was fed up with school but I knew I wouldn’t do much with my life if I stayed in Catonsville [Maryland],” said Ken Roberts, 60. “So, I decided to enlist in the military because I just didn’t think that I was college material I decided to do something constructive and get paid for it.”
Roberts, who served in the Army for seven years during which time he achieved the rank of sergeant, returned home to Catonsville and soon secured a job with Giant Foods – one he’s held for 30 years.
The father of 27-year-old twins said, “Today young people have more choices. But I have never really discussed with my children how things have changed since I was young and trying to plan for the future.
Rob Nunley, 58, who enlisted in the Marines in 1981, said he gave the military a chance because he wanted to explore it as one of several options.
“I felt it was a good means of getting away from home and an opportunity to do something different,” said Nunley who served until 1986. “I was in motor transportation. Many young people have been taught to hate their own country, especially in the minority community. But when I was growing up, the military represented a great place to start life.”
“Today, the military, like the police, has been demonized. While everyone in the military may not be a hero, there are many positive lessons that come from service in the military,” he said.
Former Navy Lt. Michael Flowers graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1985 in a class that included 1,200 Blacks. He points with pride to the fact that the top female commander of the U.S. Naval Academy, Class of 2020, was Black.
Eaves contends that the military remains a good career for all Americans, race or gender notwithstanding.
“Everyone needs discipline, education and experience,” she said. “And we must never forget that a lot of veterans made many sacrifices, some even the ‘ultimate sacrifice,’ for freedoms which many of us take for granted and which, unfortunately, some of us continue to be denied.”
With the funeral service for General Colin Powell scheduled for Nov. 5 at the Washington National Cathedral, one Black officer said he will always remember Powell for setting an example that he and others of color could follow.
“General Powell was a true patriot, model soldier and consummate leader,” said Capt. Charles D. “Duke” Smith USN (Ret.). “He inspired me with his quiet and professional manner in dealing with myriad challenges. He cut a deep path for career aspirants to follow no matter the discipline.”
“We’ve also lost a true champion of diversity. May he rest in peace and may God’s grace be with his family,” Smith said.