Black History Month: Remembering African-American women who have served

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When outgoing defense secretary Leon Panetta lifted the military ban against women serving in combat, a common phrase heard in response to his decision was this: women have been serving for decades in combat zones indirectly, and risking their lives. The lifting of the ban was merely a formality that in many ways acknowledged the bravery and sacrifices women in the military have been making for decades.

New York’s Daily News has published an essay with a similar theme in honor of black women to commemorate Black History Month. Much as women in general have been contributing without appreciation for their level of service, the significant participation of African-American women in the military has been largely overlooked — perhaps to an even greater extent.

“According to the Indiana-based Buffalo Soldiers Research Museum, African-American women have played a role in every war effort in United States history,” writes Jay Mwamba of the Daily News. “And black women participated in spite of the twin evils of racial and gender discrimination.”

Nwamba goes on to recount the heroic feats of black women who fought for the American way in creative, mind-blowing ways, pushing themselves to the limit to enhance various military efforts. Harriet Tubman, who acted as a spy, nurse and scout during the Civil War. Cathay Williams, who, after being freed from a plantation by a Union contingent, pretended to be a man so that she could enlist in a peacetime army.

“For two years — until she fell ill and her ruse was discovered — Williams served as a Buffalo Soldier with the 38th U.S. Infantry Regiment,” Mwamba relates.

Now that is truth being stranger than fiction.

But we don’t have to go back to 1866, the year Williams enlisted, to find African-American sheroes engaging in daring feats. As recently as 2009, U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Michelle Janine Howard used military might to wrestle with forces of darkness. The first black woman to command a Navy combat ship, Howard made headlines when her vessel tangled with Somali pirates in the process of rescuing the captain of a merchant ship from captivity.

In addition, it is estimated that roughly 40 percent of the women who served in Operation Desert Storm were black. Forty percent. Women such as this represent the important legacy of African-American women who have persistently fought to uphold American ideals, even when America did not always support them.

In August 2012, Vice Admiral Howard became the first black woman to be “promoted to a three-star rank in the U.S. armed forces, as she became a deputy commander of U.S. Fleet Forces,” reports The Denver Post.

TheGrio’s 100: 100 African-Americans Making History Today

Amazing. Even as we look back at all the achievements of African-American women, we are still enjoying the sweet successes of new victories. African-American women are perpetually grasping new firsts, taking one more step to secure additional rungs in the ladder towards the pinnacle of success in every area.

As we celebrate black history month, let’s take a moment to remember the black women — from Harriet Tubman to Vice Admiral Howard — who have been present in every facet of the military from the nascent years of our country’s development.

We salute you.

Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter at @lexisb.