Carrying the Colors: a Color Guard's essay from an African-American perspective

Berea, OH

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It was a clear, hot Memorial Day in Berea, Ohio, when I first experienced the honor of carrying the American flag with my American Legion Color Guard unit. I joined the post in 2017, and I remember the day when my membership became official and I was heading out the door to leave the post, when a fellow Legionnaire welcomed me and asked if I would consider joining the Color Guard. Surprised and pleased by the offer, I immediately said yes and I haven’t looked back since. I put in an order for a new uniform and my journey as a member of the Color Guard began. From details, to ceremonies, parades and special events, I’ve raised my hand to participate in just about every activity possible. What an amazing experience it’s been so far. As a retired Air Force veteran, I now have the privilege of donning a uniform once again, to serve alongside some of the country’s best: the men and women of The American Legion. My first opportunity to serve in this capacity was participating in the Memorial Day parade. There I was, shoulder to shoulder with my fellow brother and sister military veterans, marching in the Memorial Day parade, dressed in our traditional Color Guard uniform, looking sharp and feeling proud. As an African-American, the emotion and dynamics took on a completely different feeling for me altogether. While there are a few African-American members on the books, none of them are as active or visible. As a minority, my involvement at the post level has many meanings attached to it. However awkward or tenuous one might believe the atmosphere to be, my genuine love and affection for people, regardless of race, penetrates the ugliness of societal views and engenders the kind of friendships and camaraderie that I’ve come to enjoy as an active-duty Air Force servicemember. And it wasn’t lost on me that my willingness to serve on the Color Guard seemed to have appealed to a large majority of the members at the post. I agreed to serve and was accepted into the fold right away. To me, that is a small example of what service above self looks like. When people serve, we tend to see the service and not the person. In other words, putting service above yourself has a transcending element to it. I believe people are drawn to those who serve in any capacity. In my opinion, true service transcends gender, race, creed, et cetera. But I digress…
On that fateful Memorial Day, there wasn’t a cloud to be found in the sky. There were, however, tears found in the eyes of every veteran who cheered us on, watched with pride, and rendered their salute as we passed by. I was asked to call cadence to help keep us in step as we marched in the parade. I’ve called cadence plenty of times when I was active-duty, but I don’t think I ever called cadence quite as loudly as I did that day. What a treat, and a special honor. It seemed like with every glance and smile that I received from the crowd, the cadence became louder and more pronounced. As a Color Guard unit, we often talk about that Memorial Day experience we shared. It’s difficult to put into words what we all felt that day marching down the street. There was no traffic, no pedestrians or animals in our path that day. Of course, everything was blocked by the local police to make way for our arrival in the parade. It was as if everything in the world stopped just for us to display our military bearing, our synchronized gate, and most importantly, to display Old Glory waving in the Memorial Day wind.
In a culture riddled with racial divides and harmful rhetoric, it is refreshing to know that you belong to an organization of like-minded men and women who share common goals, aspirations, experiences, and a commonly shared thread that has been intricately woven into the fabric of our American flag. People talk a lot about God and country. The difference for me, however, is the fact that I serve God and my country with boldness and passion; and until you’ve put on that military uniform, jumped out of bed to the sound of reveille, marched in step in inclement weather, shipped out and landed boots first onto a foreign land not knowing what to expect, laughed out loud with a fellow servicemember, or held back tears whenever the national anthem is played, you won’t understand what service to God and country looks like from the eyes and perspective of an African-American Color Guard. God Bless America!

Submitted by:
Dr. John E. Betterson Jr.

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