One hundred and forty-one years after the Corps of Cadets got its first black graduate and 86 years since it had its first graduate in the 20th century, West Point, the United States Military Academy (USMA), is finally receiving its first African-American Commandant of Cadets. To say that seeing that was a surprise is an understatement.

Lieutenant General Darryl A. Williams takes over today as the 60th Commandant of Cadets. He replaces LTG Robert L. Caslen who is retiring after 40 years of service including the last five as the Commandant of Cadets at the USMA. The graduating class this spring had the first African-American as the first Captain of the Corps of Cadets. Simon Askew, a Rhodes scholar was the first black cadet to achieve that honor.

In this day and age, it is still amazing that we have to preface these events with the words “ first Black this” or “first Black that”…regardless, they won’t be the last. Williams came from Europe where he was the commander of NATO’s Allied Land Command, in Turkey. He also served in Korea as the Deputy CG in charge of Support for the 2nd Infantry Division and as the Deputy Chief of Staff for the US Army Europe.

Williams has also been assigned as the Assistant Surgeon General for Warrior Care and Transition, where those programs are designed to manage the care and recovery of soldiers evacuated from theater, and those who have returned from combat that requires complex care management to cope with the effects of war and multiple deployments.

In 2014, Williams was assigned by President Obama as the lead for the United States’ efforts to battle Ebola in Africa. He set up a command center in Liberia and had 3,000 military trainers to set up facilities and his troops helped prepare health workers to combat the continent’s Ebola crisis.

Williams was a Battery commander during Desert Shield/Desert Storm and later served as the Commander for Division Artillery during Operation Iraqi Freedom. He is a 1983 graduate of West Point with degrees in leadership development, military art and science, and national security and strategic studies and now has Master’s degrees in each of those fields.

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And yet where about 19 percent of the Army’s force is Black, still only 10 percent of the officers are and the percentage who make General Officer is much smaller still around 5-6 percent. For every Colin Powell or Johnnie E. Wilson, too many others fall thru the cracks.

Powell was the first Black to become the Secretary of State during the Bush administration, he rose to four-star rank. Wilson grew up in a housing project in Cleveland and joined the Army because that was the only way, he’d ever get a chance to go to college. He was enlisted but had good mentors who encouraged him to keep striving to better himself. He became an officer and over a 38-year career also rose to a four-star rank.

However, many Black officers choose non-combat arms careers to better prepare themselves for service outside the military and combat arms officers are generally promoted faster than the other non-combat arms officers.

Diversity is a word that is thrown around the military a lot these days. And frequently it is used wrong and many people assume that if you are pro-diversity, then you are operating on some sort of a quota system. That is as wrong as rain.

There is a good reason why the military favors diversity and it has zero to do with any social justice warriors who look for a conspiracy behind every rock. The bottom line is diversity makes the entire force better. Good leaders benefit from knowing and getting a lot of different viewpoints as well as the blending of a lot of cultures in the force.

Young people look up to and emulate people who they admire. And when it comes to the officer ranks, the military can do a much better job of recruiting Black men and women to volunteer for officer candidate schools as well as in ROTC in the college ranks. One reason why many Blacks may not volunteer is they don’t see many other Blacks being selected for General Officer ranks.

The military academies are another matter. At times minority Congressmen, who must nominate prospective candidates for the service academies, often nominate very few if any. That is wrong on a couple of different levels. It is removing the opportunity for several men and women a chance to excel and it weakens the force.

From Pentagon data from back in 2009, there were 38 Congressmen who didn’t nominate a single person for the academies, and there were 75 who didn’t nominate a single person in a four-year period. Of those, 75, 40 were either Black or Hispanic. There is no excuse for it.

We’re not talking rocket science here. No one is advocating lowering standards either…because that is exactly what some will point to. No, it is the exact opposite. I’d like to see the standards increase to get a better quality person going thru the officer pipeline. Look, if you are recruiting for a new unit and you have slots for 50 hard-chargers, will you have better luck recruiting the unit with 250 qualified candidates or 500?

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Next month will mark the 70th anniversary that President Truman fully integrated the military. He signed an executive order on July 26, 1948, which ended military segregation once and for all. We’ve come a long way in the military since those days where Black units were relegated to combat service and support jobs in the Army and Marines and in the Navy where they were given menial jobs.

Benjamin O. Davis was the first Black officer to graduate from the USMA in the 20th century and had to endure four years of silence. Few of his classmates ever spoke to him outside of official duties. He never had a roommate or ate a meal with anyone. He graduated in 1936 and commanded the Tuskegee Airmen and later the 332nd Fighter Group (Red Tails) the African-American fighter group of World War II fame. When he was commissioned, the Army had two Black officers. Him and his father, BG Benjamin O. Davis Sr.

Hopefully, this generation will mark the end of us hearing that “General A. is the first Black such and such in the Army.” This isn’t about reaching quotas or lowering the standards of the Army. It is about making the standards higher and just doing a better job or recruiting and marketing the military to more people.

We can do better.

Photo: US Army