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Biden, Harris highlight role of Black service members in first Pentagon visit

Capt. Tiara Tompkins-Bradley, 595th Transportation Brigade, reaffirms Sgt. Ricky N. Paige's oath of enlistment at Kuwait Naval Base, Kuwait, Feb. 4, 2021. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris paid tribute to Black service members, during their first official visit to the Pentagon.

CLAUDIA LAMANTIA/U.S. ARMY

By MISSY RYAN | The Washington Post | Published: February 11, 2021

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris paid tribute to the contributions of Black service members, acknowledging the barriers they have faced in uniform, on Wednesday during their first official visit to the Pentagon.

Speaking to reporters, Biden referred to the service of African Americans from the Revolutionary War to the conflicts of the modern era, even though their actions, as Biden put it, "were not always recognized or honored appropriately."

The president noted that more than 40% of active-duty troops are people of color, a share that remains underrepresented at the military's highest levels.

"It's long past time that the full diversity and full strength of our force is reflected at every level of this department," said Biden, standing alongside Harris, the country's first female, Black and Asian American vice president, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, its first Black defense secretary.

Biden and Harris later visited an area of the Pentagon that honors pioneering African American troops, including the Tuskegee Airmen, a mostly Black aviator unit that flew sorties during World War II, when the military was still segregated.

The visit further signals the Biden administration's intent to illustrate a break with its predecessor by elevating gender and racial diversity in government ranks. Under President Donald Trump, most of the Pentagon leadership was white and male.

Austin, who was the first Black Army officer to serve in a number of roles, has also taken charge of an effort to reckon with the military's troubled legacy of racism, gender discrimination and far-right extremism.

Those problems have been highlighted over the last year, first by the civil unrest caused by police violence against African Americans and more recently by the participation of veterans and a handful of service members in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.

The Biden administration also has moved to reverse a Trump-era policy that imposed strict limits on service by transgender troops and taken greater action to address the military's long-standing problem with sexual harassment and assault.

Speaking before Biden, Harris said that Black troops who fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill and in the Civil War "didn't just join to make history, they joined to serve, and all of you joined to serve."

As he becomes commander in chief, Biden will tap decades of experience as a senator focusing in part on foreign policy issues and his involvement in military-related issues, including the U.S. war in Iraq, as vice president during the Obama administration.

Biden said he was the first president in 40 years whose son or daughter has served in a war zone. His late son, Beau, deployed to Iraq as a member of the Delaware Army National Guard.

"This is personal for me," he said.

Addressing U.S. troops, Biden again attempted to distance himself from Trump, who bucked traditional limits governing presidential interactions with the military and often treated troop events like campaign rallies.

"I will never, ever dishonor you. I will never disrespect you. I will never politicize the work you do," he said.

Biden's administration is expected to stay the course on many major policy issues, first among them the Pentagon's effort to devote greater resources to competing with China after years of focusing on the counterinsurgent wars that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

As part of that effort, Biden announced a new Pentagon task force to assess where the military stands vis-a-vis China and its large, rapidly modernizing military. The panel, which will include 15 uniformed and civilian officials, will be headed by a top China official, Ely Ratner, the Pentagon said in a statement before Biden's announcement.

The task force, whose establishment was first reported by the Wall Street Journal, is expected to deliver its assessment within four months.

Republicans have accused Biden of being soft on China. Former secretary of state Mike Pompeo said in an interview last month that Beijing is looking for a "soft underbelly" in Biden's China policy.

Biden administration officials have said that they are concerned about China. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in an interview with CNN this week that the Trump administration was "right to take a tougher approach to China" but that the Biden administration wants to do so differently, in coordination with allies.

The Washington Post's Dan Lamothe and Anne Gearan contributed to this report.

In this screenshot President Joe Biden speaks during his first official visit to the Pentagon, Feb. 10, 2021.
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