WILL ROGERS AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Okla. --
Who was the first black chief master sergeant at the 137th Special Operations Wing?
This is a question that I asked when my office began to prepare for African-American Heritage Month a little more than a year ago.
What I realized, ultimately, was that I should have been asking a different question.
Information about our first black chief was fairly easy to find, but what struck me was the man himself was not.
Throughout this past year, I spoke at length with many of my fellow service members, both active and retired, who remember our first African-American chief. Words that were often used to describe him were words you would expect associated with any chief — dependable, honorable, calm, polite and hardworking. Curiously though, colleagues that worked with him often no longer knew how to get in touch with him. For all intents and purposes, he had disappeared after retirement.
As the public affairs superintendent at the 137 SOW, I felt our coverage last year of AAHM was incomplete without a story about him.
As I continued to work on stories and projects, I always had Chief in the back of my mind. I took every opportunity to inquire if people knew him or how to reach him and occasionally came up with creative ways to try and locate him, all of which ultimately led nowhere.
In a last ditch effort leading up to our initiatives for this year’s AAHM, I finally found someone who knew someone who could get in touch with him!
My communication with him was through two degrees of separation and felt a little like an old-fashioned game of telephone. These contacts conveyed my requests to Chief, going back and forth a few times, but in the end each responded that Chief was unwilling to share his story. In the hopes that speaking directly to Chief might change his mind, I asked if I could contact him. However, my request was declined, stating that he was not yet ready to speak of his time at the 137th.
Disappointed, it was hard not to wonder if race was involved, especially when the very core of our story was going to be about race.
Speaking about race is not easy. It often makes people uncomfortable. Some don’t address it, because they don’t understand it or it doesn’t affect them. Others just choose to ignore it, because that‘s just easier.
As a white man, a racial demographic that makes up 72 percent of the U.S. Air Force and 77 percent nationally, it is easy for me to not think about race. I can choose to temporarily live in a world where color doesn’t matter. I have this luxury because I don’t live in a world where I am made aware of my whiteness.
I was recently discussing an ongoing Air Force initiative on diversity and inclusion with another Chief, who also happens to be African-American. He recalled that when he speaks with young minority Airmen about how they are being treated, he usually gets responses like, “everything’s great” or “I’m doing my part”. He listens, and then he asks the question again, emphasizing, how the individual is being treated. “How are you being treated?”
I found this second question to be powerful and sobering. Every day I work with Airmen of diverse backgrounds and often forget the challenges they may face or encounter throughout their careers. As an organization, the U.S. Air Force is at the forefront of racial and gender equality, diversity, inclusion and safety. When you operate in an environment as proactive as we do, it is easy to forget that there still are challenges that 72 percent of us will never have to face.
I had always considered myself to be aware of issues of diversity and differences. I endeavor to be a good mentor to young Airmen, consciously choosing to not shy away from tough subjects. Yet, I realized I had never asked anyone, particularly Airmen of color, how they were being treated.
That is the question I should have been asking. That is a question we should all be asking.
Will Rogers Air National Guard Base’s first African-American chief master sergeant was Clifford McFadden. He retired from the Oklahoma Air National Guard with nearly 26 years of honorable service.
If Chief McFadden joined today, he would still be in a racial demographic that makes up approximately 14 percent of the overall force, which has been statistically steady the last 20 years. What he would also see is a vibrant and diverse group of Airmen, of various racial and ethnic backgrounds, proactively being young leaders, moving through the ranks and more closely representing the society we serve .
My quest to meet Chief McFadden has yet to be realized. What I do know about Chief, though, is that he is part of the 1 percent of Americans that chose to serve his country. He attained a rank that only 1 percent of the enlisted force that choose to serve will ever achieve. And the impact he made on every Airmen that knew him is still evident.
Only Chief McFadden can speak to the triumphs and challenges that he undoubtedly experienced during his long and illustrious career. Until then, he will be honored in absentia. His perseverance and service deserve to be recognized as among the strongest pillars to Will Rogers’ history. When Chief McFadden is ready to share his story with our next generation of Airmen, we will be ready. His story will undoubtedly empower today’s bright, young, diverse Airmen, as they grow and develop their own careers .
For me, I will continue to do my part to ensure that all Airmen continue to be afforded the same opportunities but also remember that we all grow and develop through different challenges. So, when I am speaking to an Airman that is not part of my 72-percent racial demographic, I am also going to ask: How are you being treated?
To read the the African-American History Month series from last year, follow the links below.
To read the introduction, click here
To read Part 1, click here.
To read Part 2, click here.
To read Part 3, click here.
To read Part 4, click here.