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This Veterans Day we must commit to breaking barriers for Black service members

OPINION: U.S. Rep. Anthony Brown writes that challenges facing Black veterans are driven by historic inequities that have existed in America since its founding.

Black Americans have fought in every war since our country’s founding and have a proud tradition of military service. From the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment and the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry Regiment who fought gallantly during the Civil War; to the original Buffalo Soldiers, members of the 10th Cavalry Squadron, on the Western Frontier. 

We count among us the Harlem Hellfighters of World War I and the Black female soldiers of the  “6-triple 8” Central Directory Postal Battalion, who boosted the morale of troops during World War II.

In this photo provided by the U.S. Army Women’s Museum, members of the 6888th battalion stand in formation in Birmingham, England, in 1945. (U.S. Army Women’s Museum via AP)

And of course, we continue to recognize the storied Tuskegee Airman of the 332nd Expeditionary Operations Group and the 477th Bombardment Group. We honor the memory of Secretary of State, General Colin Powell, who was the youngest and first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And we look to the future with General Lloyd Austin, who today is the first African American to serve as U.S. Secretary of Defense.

Millions of African Americans, from privates to generals, have served our nation proudly in uniform. Today, there are more than 2.5 million Black veterans and counting. But too many face challenges, driven by historic inequity and barriers that have existed in our country since our founding.

Black and Brown servicemembers face disparities in promotion, opportunities and are still treated unfairly by our military justice system. Black veterans are targeted and exploited by predatory lenders, face higher rates of unemployment than other veterans, and are more likely to require a higher level of care from combat injuries when they return home.

To address these disparities, we need to be intentional. 

In Congress, I’ve helped pass ambitious reforms to make our ranks more inclusive and diverse. I’ve worked to build strong partnerships between the Department of Defense and HBCUs. I continue to lead the charge to ensure equal justice in our military justice system. I’ve fought to not only acknowledge shortcomings in our military’s history, but to honor the unsung Black military heroes throughout. And continue the work to ensure that white supremacy, racism, extremism and anti-Semitism have no place in our military. 

U.S. Army soldiers pose for photos after becoming American citizens at a naturalization ceremony on July 02, 2021 in New York City. Twenty-five members of the U.S. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

We need to break down barriers for service members and meet Black veterans where they are, to give them the support they need for their many years of honorable service to our nation.

Serving as part of the best fighting force in the world is one of the highest honors in American life. Our men and women in uniform and the ever-growing community of veterans have always been at the center of our military’s mission. Those who served in World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Iraq, Afghanistan and so many other theaters are part of a larger story that’s more than 200 years old. 

While every service member will take off the uniform, our sense of duty and love of country stays with us into civilian life. Veterans become teachers, health care workers, engineers, activists, faith and community leaders. They recognize that service to our country doesn’t end on the battlefield, but continues in the work we do back home

Our country makes a sacred promise to our veterans. For their sacrifices, we pledge to take care of them and their families when they return home. I strongly believe that it’s not enough to simply thank veterans for their service, but rather we show our thanks through action. 

U.S. Marines prepare to march in the Veterans Day Parade on November 11, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Through access to higher education programs that help newly returned veterans gain the skills and knowledge they’ll need for the next step in their careers. Through job and career opportunities that will help them raise a family and enjoy all that our country has to offer. Through safe, affordable, and quality housing. And through the best healthcare our country has to offer, to heal the wounds of war and ensure their continued wellbeing in the years after they take off the uniform.

This promise must always be at the forefront of our efforts to serve those who have sacrificed so much to defend our nation, our values, and our way of life. Unfortunately, we know that this promise has not always been kept. We still have work ahead of us to ensure every veteran is treated fairly and equally and has access to the same benefits and opportunities as their comrades.

As we commemorate Veterans Day, let’s commit ourselves to action. Patriotism, love of country, and a willingness to serve and sacrifice for the common good aren’t just the values of the veterans community — they’re American values.

When we reflect on the sacrifices of our veterans and the work ahead of us, we can find strength and inspiration in their stories and build a stronger, more just country centered on our shared values as a nation.

Rep. Anthony Brown, D-Md., is a member of the House Armed Services Committee and co-chair of the New Democrat Coalition’s National Security Task Force. He previously served in the U.S. Army for about 30 years before retiring as a colonel.

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