A message for the Air Force JAG Corps

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Ja Rai A. Williams, Assistant Executive Officer
  • Office of The Judge Advocate General

"People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care." - Theodore Roosevelt (26th President, United States of America)

Like many of you, I have faced a gamut of emotions especially in light of the current discussions and events in our country (and our Air Force) revolving around race and justice. Perhaps unlike many of you, these emotions are familiar to me. I am a Black woman. I have faced my fair share of bias and prejudice. I have learned to operate in our society as a person wearing a mask — one that I can only take off around family and friends, where I am confident I will be accepted and included.

I grew up in an area in Western Pennsylvania that was predominantly blue-collar. My maternal great-grandparents moved from Alabama to Pennsylvania during the era of “The Great Migration” where millions of Black Americans moved to major northern cities in search of better social and economic opportunities. My great-grandfather landed a job at one of the local steel mills in one of the lowest paid and most dangerous jobs due to the perception that Black Americans were shiftless, ignorant, and lazy. Still, this opportunity was better than options he had in Alabama and he worked hard in an unskilled position, earning 30 cents an hour for working eight to 12 hours a day.

My paternal great-grandfather was a retired chief master sergeant in the Air Force friends with some of the renowned Tuskegee Airmen and his circle also included the first Black highest ranking enlisted person in the Air Force. He was very proud of being a Black man serving his country, in spite of the adverse treatment he received as a black servicemember.

I am the proud descendent of these two men, and many other strong and resilient men and women in my family, who have persevered despite years of institutionalized marginalization, bias and bigotry. When I decided to apply for the Air Force Judge Advocate General Corps, I talked proudly of these men during my interview and my desire to show their good works, struggles, and hardships would not be in vain.

Along the way during my career, I have faced countless disappointments and setbacks, mostly related to my race or gender. But, I understood that these experiences were to be expected as the Air Force is just a subset of a society struggling to address these matters. However, like my great-grandfathers, I persevered for those who have walked these steps before me and for those who will walk in these steps after me. And, I’ve met some wonderful people — brothers and sisters in arms who have oftentimes walked beside me and even carried me when I could not walk on my own. We have had candid conversations about race, offering perspectives not otherwise considered and brainstorming solutions to 400-year old problems we had no part in creating. But, we have the discussions actively listening and hearing each other as we attempt to grapple with the complexities of race topics and how it impacts what we do in the Air Force.

These are the conversations that matter for leaders because subordinates do not expect leaders to have all of the answers. They just want to know that their leaders care. This is leadership. And leadership is what we all need during such a time as this. Please have these constructive conversations so we can move one more step towards having the Air Force we need. Your Airmen need you.

“Head or Heart?” A distinction used to characterize a wicked-hard problem. The connotation is that the hardest issues to resolve seem to be those where people think with their hearts instead of their heads. Actually, “head or heart?” is really a false dilemma, a self-created, juxtaposition of two things, something I accuse others of often doing unnecessarily. Maybe “heart vs head” is just intellectual laziness on my part or a coping mechanism to make sense of a seemingly irresolvable issue. In the law, we pride ourselves on our objectivity, sometimes to the point where our strict objectivity may actually be a bias. In an attempt to reconcile the dilemma, perhaps a better way to say it is to always approach justice with an objective head, and with all the heart you can muster.

Lt. Col. Williams’ piece moved me, perhaps because it sounds like my family story, sans the race and gender aspects. My father and grandparents worked in the very same steel mills and mines in southwest PA she mentions, where they learned proper English and how to tell time, with words like “younze” and “10 til six.” They weren’t known as “lazy and shiftless”; instead, they were thought of as “dumb and stupid, fresh off the boat.”

Ja Rai and I are a lot alike. We serve two professions, both greater than ourselves, to defend a diverse nation. We love our Black and Gold too. We’re also a lot different, thankfully. A diverse force is required to defend a diverse nation. Perhaps part of that difference is easier for me to navigate, maybe because you can’t see a protected class in me, if any, like you can in her the instant she walks into the room?

Talk to each other, with “head AND heart.” We look forward to hearing your solutions to yesterday’s call.

- Lt. Gen. Jeffrey A. Rockwell, The Judge Advocate General, Headquarters U.S. Air Force