As we memorialize and pay tribute to all of our fallen heroes on this year’s Memorial Day, it is important to embrace those soldiers who have been historically overlooked. Black soldiers have fought and died in every American war, both abroad and domestic. Throughout history, they have demonstrated courage and valor in the face of discrimination and prejudice. It is our patriotic duty to admire their resolve and honor their unwavering dedication to service.
Historians consider Crispus Attucks, a black patriot at the time of the Revolutionary War, to be the first American to give his life for our country. All-Black infantry units were a significant force contributing to the Northern States winning the Civil War and thus, unifying the nation. Furthermore, while Jim Crow laws still held an oppressive grip on nearly all of the Armed Forces at the time of World War II, the bravery of the Tuskegee Airmen as the first all-black fighter pilot group should be forever remembered. Yet until President Harry S. Truman issued Executive Order 9981 in 1948, the Armed Forces were still highly segregated.
While much progress has been made in integrating today’s Armed Forces, social inequality still persists among the black veterans community. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistic’s 2011 annual averages, the unemployment percentage of 18 and over black Americans who served in the Armed Forces (15.5 percent) is more than double that of white persons (7.7 percent). We must do better to guarantee that the needs of all our returning veterans will be properly addressed, regardless of race. These valiant Americans have given and risked too much to arrive home and fail to gain adequate employment, educational, or medical benefits.
Earlier this month, I commended the endeavors of the U.S. Department of Labor and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) in their partnership to structure a new federal program to re-train veterans for high-demand jobs in the economy. The Veterans Retraining Assistance Program aims to cover education costs for 99,000 veterans seeking career training. President Barack Obama’s new Veterans Job Corps Initiative will further benefit jobless veterans. This Initiative, along with the VOW to Hire Heroes Act passed in Congress last year, will ensure the continued creation of jobs for unemployed veterans living across our nation. As a veteran who earned stripes in the Korean War, I can personally appreciate our president’s continued dedication to our nation’s honorable veterans.
In addition to the administration’s strategies to providing jobs, we must fully prepare soldiers for their return to civilian life in today’s challenging job market. In response to this need, I have introduced the Mandatory Transition Assistance Act. In a nutshell, this bill will help facilitate the domestic transition requiring that all separating soldiers and sailors undergo a battery of enhanced Transition Assistance Programs (TAP), which in the past had been voluntary.
This proposed legislation also directs the Secretaries of Defense and Homeland Security to make participation in TAP mandatory for all military personnel before they are able to receive their discharge papers. Moreover, the Secretaries would offer mandatory assistance in preparing resumes, searching for civil employment, translating military skill-sets into civilian employment requirements, and obtaining counseling needed in order to evaluate the participating member’s successful completion of the program. This bill, once passed by into law, will assuredly help black veterans close the gap on the disproportionate unemployment figures.
Memorial Day signifies more than this year’s last Monday in May. This day exists to honor all Americans who have served and fallen in service to the greatest nation in the world. Memorial Day continues to be one of our country’s proudest traditions because it is fundamentally within the American character to honor and observe the bravery of soldiers that have paid the ultimate sacrifice. Blacks Americans are as much a part of this tradition as any other race. Those black heroes have given their lives to ensure that the rights and freedoms of the American people are protected. Today, we salute them.