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‘It’s time for change:’ Veterans speak about bases named for Confederates

Stephanie Starkey is an Army veteran who served at Fort Polk, which is named after a Confederate general. Starkey said, "It doesn't help to be surrounded by monuments to people who don't think I have the right to exist."

ANDREW JANSEN, SPRINGFIELD NEWS-LEADER/TNS

By AUSTIN HUGUELET | Springfield News-Leader | Published: June 22, 2020

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (Tribune News Service) – When Stephanie Starkey was serving at Fort Polk in the mid-2000s, she didn't give much thought to the base's name.

At that point, she was just trying to survive in rural Louisiana, where she endured slights "for being Black, being a woman, being in an interracial marriage, for whatever my rank happened to be at the time" and taking care to avoid certain towns whenever she left base.

But on Wednesday, Starkey, who retired as a captain and now lives in Springfield, described that treatment as of a piece with the fact that her post was named for Leonidas Polk, a Confederate general and slaveowner.

"The armed forces may be diverse, but people are still not treated the same," Starkey said. "And it doesn't help to be surrounded by monuments to people who don't think I have the right to exist."

In interviews this week, many Black Missouri veterans young and old agreed, saying recent decisions in Congress and the Pentagon to consider renaming 10 Army bases named for Confederate officers are both welcome and a long time coming.

J.W. White, 61, who served in the famed 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg in North Carolina -- named for Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg -- said he knows some people now see names and flags as harmless symbols of Southern pride, including people he grew up with in Mississippi.

But White, who now lives in Kansas City, said it's always meant one thing to Black people.

"It represents a way of life that we as African Americans couldn't tolerate and didn't want," he said. "Now that it's 2020, it's time for some changes."

David Seamon, a retired Marine officer in Columbia now serving on the Columbia Board of Education, said honoring Confederates also sends a mixed message to a modern military where 17 percent of active-duty personnel are Black.

"We all take this oath to defend the Constitution," he said, "but some of these guys took the same oath and then violated it."

Seamon, 31, said his own branch's decision to ban displays of the Confederate battle flag at its installations last week is a step in the right direction.

When he saw fellow Marines driving to headquarters with Confederate flags on their trucks, it made it harder for him to trust them because he didn't know if they respected him, he said.

"I think removing some of these things will help build some of those relationships and make them stronger," he said.

Not everyone feels the same way.

Darrick Peppers, who like White is retired 82nd Airborne, said Fort Bragg's namesake didn't affect him when he was there and doesn't affect him now.

"It was more about unit pride," Peppers said. "There's a lot of history at Bragg that probably overshadows the name itself. They're just names, not the spirit of who we are."

He said he's done his research and is well-aware that Braxton Bragg is an odd choice as both a traitor and a poor commander who lost most of the battles he engaged in, including crucial conflicts around Chattanooga that helped spell doom for his side.

"But if you ask me, it's already been renamed," Peppers said. "It's the home of America's Honor Guard."

Abe McGull, a retired Navy officer who now works as a prosecutor and serves on the Springfield City Council, said vestiges of the Confederacy couldn't take away his pride in service either.

But he said leaders should have conversations about the pain it may cause others.

"If it is hurtful to some people, we need to consider that and have a conversation about how we should move forward," he said.

That conversation began in earnest last week, when the Army's top brass said they wanted a "bipartisan discussion" on renaming bases amid a national reckoning on American racism, including its embodiment in the Confederacy.

President Donald Trump, who has cast the base names as a part of the country's "heritage," said the next day he would block any such changes.

But Democrats in Congress didn't give up.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., introduced an amendment to the must-pass defense spending bill requiring the Pentagon to rename the bases, all of which are in states that seceded, saying it's "long past time to end the tribute to white supremacy on our military installations."

Then, in a bit of a surprise June 10, a committee in the Republican-controlled Senate gave initial approval to a plan to force renaming within three years.

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, offered the most vocal opposition, calling it an effort by Democrats and a "woke mob" to "erase history" and further divide the country.

But other leading Republicans have been open to the idea.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky signaled to reporters this past week he's one of them.

"If it's appropriate to take another look at these names, I'm personally OK with that -- and I am a descendant of a Confederate veteran myself," McConnell said. "With regard to military bases, whatever is ultimately decided, I don't have a problem with."

And when CNN asked Sen. Roy Blunt, Missouri's senior senator, about the idea, he said he didn't "have any problem with that at all."

Civil rights leaders who have long called for the bases to be renamed say now is time to turn openness into action.

"It is time to understand that it is unjust and immoral to name an Army post after the very people that would have opposed equality for all soldiers," said Webster Davis, a retired Marine who sits on the executive committee of the Missouri NAACP.

And to those who would accuse them of "erasing history," the veterans interviewed scoffed.

"We still learn about the Nazis and the Germans do, too," said Seamon, the retired Marine in Columbia. "Just because there are no statues of Adolf Hitler in Berlin doesn't mean they don't know what happened."

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