Advisers try to make sure heritage months engaging
Back in the 1960s, it was called “race relations.”
“A force-fed education to whites in the military,” said Eddie Bell, a retired Army first sergeant. “There was no Hispanic heritage day or month. Either you were Caucasian, you were Negro, or you were ‘other.’ ”
Race relations have gotten a makeover.
February’s soul food lunches and civil rights re-enactments of African American/Black History Month are making way for the March events of Women’s History Month.
Token observances? Not anymore, according to the Equal Opportunity advisers who organize the events.
“The military is so diverse, we try to break down those barriers,” said Sgt. 1st Class David Ward, the adviser at Army Garrison Grafenwöhr. “When I was (stationed) in Hawaii, we were kind of forced to attend. It was command-driven. At first, I was kind of apprehensive and didn’t want to go.”
Many years ago, Bell said, it was easy to see why someone would want to skip an event. Sometimes, he said, the person teaching the class was a bigot.
“If you have someone who was raised where blacks were the lowest persons on the totem pole, and he gives the class, you can kind of imagine the atmosphere,” Bell said. “In some cases, it probably made [people] hate each other more.
“Sometimes it would get real heated, and they would just stop the classes. Or someone would ask something like, ‘Is it true that you people just eat that kind of food?’ ”
The advisers, known as EOAs, sometimes use food to lure the audience, Ward said, and provide entertainment so people stick around. Bell, now the chief of projects and plans at 52nd Signal Battalion in Stuttgart, re-enacted lines from Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches during Stuttgart’s MLK Day breakfast in January.
In all, Army Regulation 600-20 mandates eight cultural observances, including Asian-Pacific heritage (May), Hispanic heritage (mid-September to mid-October) and Native American heritage in November.
Then, earlier this week, President Bush proclaimed March as Irish-American Heritage Month, a time when “we recognize the vital contributions of Irish-Americans to our nation.”
The month hasn’t found its way into the Army regs, which is how the others got started.
Heritage events are supposed to be inclusive, said U.S. Army Europe Equal Opportunity Sgt. Maj. Sandra Hightowersmith. That way, the people standing around aren’t all the same race.
“Before, yes, it was more like that,” Hightowersmith said. “I don’t think it was geared that way, but that’s what was happening. Now, we have a social mix. The understanding is it’s not just for ‘those folks.’ ”
Events can attract several dozen people or several thousand.
“We don’t twist anybody’s arm to get them in the door,” said Sgt. 1st Class Lewis Polk of Division Artillery, 1st Armored Division in Baumholder, Germany. “We put it on the [command] TV, put it through the e-mail channels, and usually get pretty good participation.
“We can usually fill the room without saying, ‘Hey, sergeant major, we need people in here.’ ”
Many EOAs are troops who volunteered for the cause.
“When I deployed (to Iraq in 2003), I’d see sexual harassment everywhere,” said Sgt. 1st Class Celeste Brown of Army Garrison Darmstadt.
“I would see senior noncommissioned officers sexually harassing junior ones, and [combat troops] sexually harassing females in combat support units, making inappropriate remarks, whistling, winking constantly asking soldiers out, spreading rumors, making jokes of sexual nature.
“I wanted to make a difference.”
The advisers are allowed to produce a range of events, with just a few restrictions, said USAREUR’s Hightowersmith.
“I teach them what we will not have — a presenter that has a script that would encite a riot or disrupt good order and discipline. No language that is gender-biased, racist or sexist in nature. If it’s in poor taste, then I’m not having it.
“We don’t cater to any race. This is for the people, by the people.”
Commemorations and observances
Third Monday in January: Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday
February: African-American/Black History Month
March: Women’s History Month
End of April, early May: “Days of Remembrance” for Victims of the Holocaust
May: Asian Pacific Heritage Month
August 26: Women’s Equality Day
Sept. 15-Oct. 15: National Hispanic Heritage Month
November: National Native American Indian Heritage Month
Source: U.S. Army Regulation 600-20