In 2004—amid the thick of summer—I entered my initial Infantry training at Fort Benning, Georgia. Whenever a drill sergeant walked in the room we would all have to stand up and yell in unison – “dead man walking drill sergeant!” Five years later and nine months into my deployment on a Chinook helicopter flying to a rescue mission in Afghanistan, I finally understood what that meant.
My team was asked to plan a rescue mission for a Kiowa OH-58 helicopter that was shot down in the Pech River Valley. Fearing for the lives of the pilots, we quickly grabbed our gear and attended an intelligence briefing to prepare for the logistics of the mission. The Kiowa was shot down just miles from the Pakistan border in an extremely mountainous region of the country. We locked arms on the tarmac and said, as was customary, a quick prayer asking that if this be our last mission then we die with righteousness and that our brothers would be safe – and we were indeed brothers. Within an hour of getting the call we were wheels up headed to the insertion point.
I was tasked with running point and navigating the team of nearly fifteen from the insertion point to the objective. I had done this countless times before, but I knew that one false move or mistake could be fatal. We all did. At the beginning of the hour long flight I looked at my GPS and map and ensured I understood our route. Then, I began to look around at the men whom I knew so well. I could see their eyes from the green glow of the night-vision googles. They were men that had the unmistakable stare of war. They were from every corner of the country; people whom I would have never known but for our common bond as brothers-in-arms for America. The issues that seem to cause the most bickering stateside like race and political affinity were the furthest thing from our minds.
We were united by our common mission, our common purpose, and we looked at ourselves as Americans first. My experience in the military allowed me to understand that it was possible for us as Americans to transcend some of the evils that divide us.
In the fall of my sophomore year at Morehouse College, I began working on the George W. Bush presidential campaign. While working on the campaign I built a network with college Republicans across the state of Georgia and nationally. This prompted me to organize a College Republican chapter at Morehouse. In preparing all the founding paperwork I was notified that it was the first College Republican chapter ever at a Historically Black College or University (HBCU). I was proud to chart new territory, in fact; the chapter continues to thrive. However, establishing the chapter was no easy feat as I encountered resistance from some students, faculty, and administrators. Diversity of thought was only tolerated if it was thought shared by many of the more liberal students and faculty. Still we pressed on. I was able to grow it into a sizeable organization and eventually discovered that there were far more conservatives on campus than anyone had imagined – many were reluctant to speak out.
Unfortunately, in 2017, the climate on college campuses and the nation as a whole has become even more polarized. I was called a bigot for supporting President Bush back then, but rarely did it affect my social life or friends on campus – even as a Republican I was named Mr. Sophomore by my fellow students. Today, however, students are routinely slighted by faculty, their grades are undercut for voicing conservative positions, and sometimes they are even kicked out of the institution. What a shame. As a nation, the thing that defines us is not the color of our skin. When people ask me about being a black conservative, I respond by saying that “I’m just a conservative like any other, although race is an important thing, it is not nearly THE most important thing about who I am.” We as Americans must feel the same way. We are united by one flag and pledge of allegiance. Whenever we play to our most basic instincts and tribalism, we forget that the founders of the country played to their highest instincts when they leveraged the Constitution. That is who we are.
Back on the Chinook in Afghanistan, the issues of division on American soil were far from all of our minds as we began to approach the insertion point. I could hear on my headset that we were three minutes out and we all stood and checked our weapons and gear. Each man was loaded with nearly a total of one hundred pounds of gear in order to complete the mission. I remember looking every man in the eye. We were ready. We were no longer dead men walking, but rather men living to fulfill the mission of our country.
As the Chinook landed and the ramp opened we were poised to do what American warriors have done since 1776 – so with eyes pierced and weapons raised we plunged once again into the darkness, united.