(AFNS) — It’s difficult to know when or how inspiration will strike, or who provides the personification that in our mind’s eye, we become. For some, it is a favorite teacher or an historical figure. For others, it is a parent. And for others, it may be a fictional character who helps us see how things might be. There is one constant in each example, however: education. Nobody achieves through dumb luck, but through education and application.
Della Rainey probably didn’t realize she was embarking on a career as a role model when she set out to attend the school of nursing at Lincoln Hospital in Durham, N.C. Endowed by the Duke family and accredited by the American Medical Association, Lincoln Hospital was one of the first African-American teaching hospitals. Rainey, who graduated in the 1930s, was the first African-American nurse to enter the Army Nurse Corps at Fort Bragg, N.C, getting promoted to chief nurse in 1942, and serving at Tuskegee Army Airfield, Ala., as a lieutenant. Rainey would ultimately be promoted to major, retiring in 1978. Her legacy of learning lives in the Della H. Rainey Nursing Scholarship, established by the Tuskegee Airmen Scholarship Foundation and the National Black Nurses Association.
Retired Chief Master Sgt. Thomas N. Barnes is the first and only African-American to serve as Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force, the highest enlisted position within the Air Force. Barnes entered the Air Force in 1949, as a high school graduate. Throughout his 28-year career, Barnes made the most of every educational opportunity while serving his country in the continental United States, Hawaii, Japan and Southeast Asia. He is a graduate of the Senior NCO Academy pilot class of 1973. He served as CMSAF for an unprecedented four years, working for equal opportunities for minorities, including blacks and women, and also worked to strengthen the enlisted professional military education system. He once said that he wanted to be remembered “as a role model for people who believe they can’t get there.”
For a select few, Air Force and education are synonymous. Maj. Gen. Alfred K. Flowers, the longest serving Airman at nearly 47 years, entered the Air Force right after high school in 1965. During the course of the next 10 years, he would serve his country in North Dakota, Vietnam, the Philippines, Texas, South Carolina and Greece while earning a bachelor’s degree. A year later, in 1976, he had earned a master’s degree. He was promoted to master sergeant and was approved to attend Officer Training School. In 1978, he was commissioned a second lieutenant in the financial management career field. More education and promotions followed as Flowers served at the Pentagon three times, with intermittent stints at the Air Combat Command in Langley, Va., and the Industrial College of the Armed Forces at Fort McNair, Washington. When he retired, his “blueprint for success” was heralded as “a strong work ethic coupled with an earnest desire for self-improvement and a genuine concern for others while maintaining a positive attitude….”
Retired Maj. Gen Marcelite Harris, the first African-American female general, broke gender and racial barriers throughout her career as she excelled in her educational pursuits. Commissioned as a second lieutenant after attending Officer Training School at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, Harris’ early assignments were as an administrative officer. She transitioned into the maintenance field by attending the aircraft maintenance officer’s course at Chanute AFB, Ill. Her first assignment, at Korat Royal Thai air base in support of the Vietnam War, was just a prelude to her future accomplishments. She was one of the first women to be an air officer commanding at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, and in 1991 she became the first female African-American general. Even in retirement, Harris continues to serve and to learn as a member of the Academy Board of Visitors.
As we observe African-American History Month, the heroes among us, past and present, take shape through the real-world application of their never-ending educations. Each in his or her way exhibits a love of learning that is exceeded only by their dedication to duty.