Freedom to Serve

  • Published
  • By Air University Public Affairs
  • Air University Public Affairs

Seventy-six years ago, President Harry Truman was shocked at what he heard. A decorated soldier, recently returned from the war that defeated Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, was removed from a Greyhound bus, beaten until he was blind, placed in handcuffs and jailed in Batesburg, South Carolina.

Sergeant Isaac Woodard, Jr. was returning home after receiving an honorable discharge. He was a decorated war veteran and was still wearing his service uniform when the police chief drove a nightstick into his eyes.


Because he was black.

Because he dared to request a bathroom stop.

Because he talked back.

Because he was black.

Woodard’s family found him a month later in a veterans hospital. He never regained his sight. The police chief who beat and blinded Woodard, Lynwood Shull, was indicted on federal charges, prosecuted, and acquitted.

When Woodard’s story reached President Truman, he was horrified. He immediately took action, establishing the 1946 Commission on Civil Rights. Two years later he implemented Executive Orders 9980 and 9981, integrating the Federal Service and the Armed Services.

Truman’s executive orders echoed the ideals written into our Declaration of Independence by our founding fathers: All men are created equal. The orders put the services on a path toward greater equality and diversity. They placed the first brick in the long and winding road we are on today. They were a start, but as the May 2020 Protect our Defenders Report and the September 2021 Inspector General’s Independent Racial Disparity Review highlight, there is more to be done. Men and women who raise their right hand and pledge their lives in service to our nation still face barriers to being their best, true selves.

Acknowledging the Gap

The first step to fixing a problem is admitting the problem exists. To affect change, we must acknowledge the gap between our nation’s founding ideals of life, liberty, freedom, justice and equality for all, and the realities experienced by many men and women in uniform today. Only then can we build on the work of generations of courageous, daring people who have challenged the status quo.

Our leadership, at all levels, is essential. If we fail to lead, we drive a deeper divide and dishonor those who have served and sacrificed in an effort to close the gap.

Leadership begins with civil discourse. We must engage with people of diverse beliefs, biologies and biographies. We must be daring and vulnerable so we can identify our own biases and gain a deeper understanding of the barriers we may not realize exist.

For some, race is an uncomfortable and difficult subject to discuss. For others, it’s an unavoidable topic given their lived experiences. Nevertheless, we must grow comfortable with the uncomfortable and confront these issues now.

Starting A Conversation

Be bold. Start a conversation by simply asking, “I want to understand.” Then listen, seek disconfirming feedback, and meaningfully engage.  Ultimately, we all want to be seen, heard and valued. We want our nation’s founding ideals to echo throughout our own stories. Racism and inequality are issues we must openly and purposefully confront if we want to move forward.

The Air Force has a tradition of leading the way.  In 1949, we were the first service to embrace integration and implement a racial integration plan approved by the Secretary of Defense.

Secretary of the Air Force Stuart Symington was the foremost champion of integration in the Department of Defense. He said, “It was the combination of the constitution; this is a government of law; not of men, and the constitution makes it very clear, especially after the 14th Amendment. It was the right thing to do morally, it was the right thing to do legally, it was the right thing to do militarily, and the Commander-in-Chief said that this should be done and so we did it.”

When facing opposition to integration, Secretary Symington made it very clear where he stood: “If you don’t agree with policy, then you ought to resign now.”

We have an opportunity to continue that bold leadership by creating another plan of action now.

We can begin by addressing the gaps identified in the disparity reports in our own units and follow with a more in-depth review of equal treatment and opportunities from recruitment through retirement.

We have a template. In 1950 the President’s Committee on the Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Forces published the Freedom to Serve Report after the directed integration of the Armed Forces.  The Freedom to Serve Report conveyed founding ideals for an inclusive, fully integrated force. The committee found that inequality in the Armed Forces contributed to inefficiency and that equal worth, equal rights, and equal opportunity are foundational to America’s value system.

The Freedom to Serve

Building on the Freedom to Serve report, 42nd Air Base Wing Command Chief Master Sgt. Lee Hoover and I elevated The Freedom to Serve as one of our three command priorities.  Under this priority, our goal is to cultivate a fully inclusive force by removing barriers to service for Airmen, Guardians, and their families to rise to their best. Only then can we lead our Air Force and our nation forward.

Our 42d Air Base Wing Freedom to Serve Champions lead this initiative in partnership with our two civic leaders, Virginia Whitfield and Lora McClendon, and our Inclusion Advisor, Bryan Stevenson, who is the Founder and Director of Montgomery’s Equal Justice Initiative.

Our Freedom to Serve Champions are charged to listen and identify barriers that prevent Airmen, Guardians, and families from rising to their best, and then tasking Chief Hoover and I to remove those barriers. You can reach our Freedom to Serve Champions, or highlight barriers to your service, through the 42 ABW/CC Action Line:

To date we have removed or improved both outdated processes and ineffective policies. We led the charge to approve and implement OCP tactical caps. We contributed to the conversation that changed female hair standards. We changed legislation to allow off-base access to our on base school. We procured resources to construct a new bathhouse for FAMCAMP residents. We eliminated the outdated bay orderly and implemented weekly GI parties for our dorm residents. We also broke ground with Hunt Housing to allow fire pits and provide additional community improvements in housing.

We have more to do, and we need your help. If it is in your way, we want to hear from you on how we can best secure your Freedom to Serve.

Riding home on that Greyhound Bus in 1946, Sgt. Isaac Woodard Jr. wanted to experience true freedom, the same freedom he valiantly defended for America. When he demanded dignity and respect, and challenged his maltreatment, he was beaten blind.

Sgt. Woodard’s story opened the eyes of the Commander-In-Chief and drove initiatives that provided greater Freedom to Serve for many Americans.

To honor the service and sacrifice of Sgt. Woodard, and many others who brought us closer to achieving America’s founding ideals, it is now up to us - all of us - to secure for