Lately, I’ve thought a lot about my 30 years in the US Navy where I learned something very important; being a good or bad person had nothing to do with skin color, religion, gender, sexual preference, birthright, or financial background. That’s a lot, but it’s true. When you’re in the military, no matter your pay grade, you will have to depend on others. I’ve seen and worked with plenty of jerks of every category under the sun and likewise, also worked with so many incredibly good people of every skin color, gender, religion, and background. In the military you either play nice with others in the sand box or they won’t play with you, it’s that simple. At some point you will need them and they you. It’s built in to military life no matter the occupation.
Early on in my first 10 years of the military, beginning in the early 1980’s, I saw great leadership as well as some of the worst; neither had ANYTHING to do with skin color. One of the best leaders I ever worked for in my time was a US Air Force Master Sergeant who happened to be African American. This person was seriously the best of the best, took care of people, was an outstanding leader, and one of the best human beings in every way possible. Skin color simply didn’t matter, this person took care of us and we worked harder because of that. You could expect to be treated fairly in any situation, every day. Let me tell you, it doesn’t get any better than that. This is just one example of the many great people I’ve worked for/with in the military. However, one of the worst leaders I worked for happened to be white. This person had the uncanny ability to consistently make the wrong decision in a sea of great alternatives, every time! If they made a good decision, which wasn’t often, it was accidental. You could actually count of this person to drop the ball and let you down, like clockwork. They didn’t try to be an awful leader, unfortunately it just seemed to come naturally. No amount of time, no leadership course or mentoring could have helped because making bad choices appeared to be this person’s forte. You know what? With this person and the Master Sergeant mentioned above, skin color had absolutely nothing to with either person’s abilities. Of these two people, only an idiot would have actually chosen to work for the latter leader described.
After many years, I became a Senior Enlisted Leader or SEL, and I saw the same examples but from a different perspective. Being trusted with the enlisted sailors of a command as a Master Chief was both humbling and the honor of a lifetime. When looking from my pay grade down the chain of command, I saw many incredibly talented sailors, excellent performers, and it had NOTHING to do with skin color, religion, gender, sexual preference, etc… These were hard working people of every possible background who were patriotic and honestly wanted to do a good job every single day. For those who didn’t fit that mold for whatever reason, or even those outright trouble makers, I can honestly say that most were in their situations for reasons of their own making. It had nothing to do with background, ethnicity, or gender. As I looked up the chain of command from myself, again the same was true. I worked for just about every type of person, good, bad, those in the middle, and race still didn’t matter. While the military was integrated back in 1948, it’s not perfect, but like America it’s hopefully moving in the right direction. Unfortunately, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit experiencing a few alleged racists over those 30 years. I say alleged because these fools knew they couldn’t spout their hateful beliefs openly where they’d likely be outed. They weren’t smart, they were spinelessly careful, and they looked for other like minded fools. Almost all of these people were very unhappy and had nothing but excuses for the reasons things didn’t go their way. It was shameful to see how they’d convince themselves that everyone, but them, was somehow responsible for their situations. They were the finger pointers who disregarded that old analogy of pointing a finger at someone means you’re really pointing three fingers back at yourself. There’s a good chance one of them will read this, my views won’t surprise them and I’m alright with that.
Regarding me, there’s one additional item, I’m a police officer’s son, I know what it feels like when Dad goes to work at midnight. I’ve known a lot of cops growing up and still meet many when I’m out shooting photos. I usually strike up a conversation just to make sure I won’t be in their way for some reason when shooting, I especially did this while photographing in Washington, DC. Honestly, watching ex-police officer Chauvin with his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck for 7+ minutes, while Mr. Floyd and bystanders pleaded for Chauvin to stop, made me feel sick. Derek Chauvin’s actions shouldn’t define all police officers, it’s a tough job. They leave their families each day putting their lives on the line to protect us as a society. However, law enforcement is better off without the Dereck Chauvin’s on the force. Even if Mr. Floyd was up to no good, it surely didn’t need to result in his death. Ex-police officer Chauvin had 7+ minutes to find another way to restrain Mr. Floyd who didn’t look like he was trying to escape. He had 7+ minutes to do change tactics while cameras were filming. Chauvin had 7+ minutes to be what the public expected from a law enforcement officer when it honestly counted. For 7+ minutes the ex-officer chose not to listen to the citizens pleading for him to stop. I don’t know much about ex-officer Dereck Chauvin, but I do believe he had NO reason or right to be Mr. Floyd’s sole judge, jury, and executioner for 7+ minutes in time.
Now, at the top of this I said being a good or bad person had nothing to do with skin color, religion, gender, sexual preference, birthright, or financial background. In my experience, people are defined by moral compass, character, and how they treat others, that’s what is meant by playing “nice with others in the sand box” described above. When I look back at my time in the military, remembering all the great leaders, those co-workers who are now dear friends, and those shipmates no longer with us, the last feature about them that stands out is race. If all the people who helped me in some way on active duty, or since as a military dependent and retiree, were suddenly and individually plucked from my memories by skin color, there just wouldn’t be much left. If I had ever embraced racism, all those incredible people I’ve mentioned and most of all my own Mexican-American wife, would have never entered my life. I can’t begin to imagine that because my life would be so much different, and not for the better. Hopefully 7+ minutes can result positive change, a needed social awareness, and a clearly articulated way forward to eradicate racism. Hopefully, those tragic 7+ minutes of time mattered and will teach society the lessons needed to leave our country a better place where ALL our children are treated the same.