What patriotism means to me: Four generations of Black veterans reflect on service to their country

Lee Vernon Newby, Jr., was still a teenager when he became one of the first African American men to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps.

“I was young and scared. I was so nervous, but I wanted the opportunity,” he said.

Eager to fight for his country at the height of World War II, Newby was drafted after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802, which “prohibited all racial discrimination in the military.”

The US Marine Corps had previously refused to recruit African Americans, but the executive order forced the branch to start recruiting Black marines. Newby trained at the Montford Point Camp, a segregated training facility adjacent to its base in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.

“I am proud to have trained with and fought next to some of the greatest men in the country,” he said.

This Veteran’s Day, four generations of Black US veterans – including Newby who celebrated his 100th birthday this year  – reflect on why they each felt called to fight for their country, despite enduring the challenges of racism and discrimination at home.

For Newby the answer is simple: Patriotism, he said, is “being willing to go all the way for your country. Be willing to put your life on the line.”

Lee Vernon Newby, Jr., is a Montford Point Marine, one of the first Black men to serve in the marines. - Courtesy Lee Newby
Lee Vernon Newby, Jr., is a Montford Point Marine, one of the first Black men to serve in the marines. - Courtesy Lee Newby

But, he added, his dedication to the US doesn’t numb the pain of the intolerance and discrimination he’s experienced. He still remembers being denied service at a Detroit-area café despite being in uniform.

“I tried to walk through the front door. They refused me service. Even with my uniform on, they told me to get out,” he said.

Newby was deployed to the Solomon Islands for the Battle of Guadalcanal. There, he was severely injured in an accident when gasoline exploded in a hole and burned more than 60% of his body.

“We were clearing an area in the jungle. I didn’t see it coming,” he said. “It looked like a flame hit me right into my jacket and chest. He said hit the deck!”

Newby recalls being in complete shock as skin and his uniform melted from his body. After four years of service in the U.S. Marine Corps, he was honorably discharged.

Decades later, Newby and the Montford Point Marines received the Congressional Gold Medal from President Barack Obama. This year, President Joe Biden commemorated Newby’s 100th birthday with a framed letter.

Newby’s family was inspired to continue his legacy of service, his oldest son is a former Marine and medical doctor and two of his grandchildren are actively serving.

His family believes he deserves a Purple Heart, an honor that Black American soldiers were denied at the time because of racism and discrimination.

But this spring, Newby received a letter from the US Navy informing him he wasn’t entitled to the honor because he was not “wounded at the hands of the enemy,” CNN previously reported. The family has said they plan to appeal the decision.

Despite his disappointment, Newby is proud of his service encourages younger generations to consider serving. “America is the greatest country in the world,” he said. “There’s lots of opportunities.”

Col. LaShanda Cobbs (Ret) served in the US Army for more than 30 years. - Courtesy LaShanda Cobbs
Col. LaShanda Cobbs (Ret) served in the US Army for more than 30 years. - Courtesy LaShanda Cobbs

Pride, patriotism and military service were instilled in Col. LaShanda Cobbs (Ret) from a young age.

“I’ve had uncles who served in the Korean War, another uncle who served in Vietnam and retired as an Army medic. My brother also served in the Marines,” she said. “Service is a part of my family’s history.”

Cobbs said she grew up in a small town in Georgia, but always knew she wanted more. The military provided her with an opportunity to secure her education and follow her family’s rich tradition of defending America.

“I am the highest-ranking member in my family, although we’ve had generations who served – most importantly, I am a woman who is the highest-ranking member in my family,” she said.

“Patriotism means intentionally embracing the American ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I served to make those principles a reality.”

Cobbs earned her nursing degree through the U.S. Army and served during Desert Storm and the war in Afghanistan. She said regardless of challenges she faced during combat, she never wanted to give up.

“I never had a day where I wanted to throw in the towel,” she said, adding instead she focused on setting an example for younger servicemembers. “If anything, it was, ‘How do I show up? How do I have a leadership shadow that’s cast wide enough to provide an umbrella for those young men and women (to have) someone to look to?”

Cobbs retired after serving as an Army nurse for more than 30 years.

Her son, Charles Cobbs IV, has continued the family’s tradition of service in the US Army. He joined the Army under the Health Professions Scholarship Program (HPSP) and is now a second-year medical student. After graduating, he plans to become an Army doctor.

Robert B. Middleton, II, served in the Vietnam War - Courtesy Robert B. Middleton, II
Robert B. Middleton, II, served in the Vietnam War - Courtesy Robert B. Middleton, II

Robert Middleton II said he felt called to “be a part of something greater” so in 1967, he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. during the Vietnam War.

Although the war was controversial and racial tensions were high during the 1960s, Middleton said he felt camaraderie from the first day he arrived at basic training.

“Going into the Marine Corps., we were greeted and accepted,” he said. “They let you know right away: ‘We don’t discriminate. There is no other Marine than a Green Marine.’”

Middleton was originally drafted by the Army but asked to enlist in the Marines instead. He served from 1967 to 1972.

Decades later, he said he still reflects on the bonds and friendships he made during Vietnam – including the secret handshakes that became popular among Black Marines.

“We would give each other DAP,” he said, using the acronym for “dignity and pride.”

“It was a gesture of solidarity among the brothers – the Black Marines.”

Those marines continued the tradition when they returned stateside and, decades later, giving DAP has permeated Black culture.

After leaving the military, Middleton moved to Detroit to attend the University of Michigan on the GI Bill. Today, he is National Commandant for the Montford Point Marines of America, a nonprofit that works to protect the legacy of the first African American Marines who served during World War II.

Middleton says, “patriotism eclipses race and politics. It’s about exercising my irrevocable birthright and privilege to exist and occupy the space of my inheritance.”

He encourages young Americans to embrace that same sense of duty and pursue a career in the service.

“Don’t be afraid to fail,” he said. “Learn from your mistakes at a young age. Pursue wisdom. Elevate and aspire towards excellence.”

Corporal Shannon Danko - Courtesy Corporal Shannon Danko
Corporal Shannon Danko - Courtesy Corporal Shannon Danko

Three decades after she enlisted in the US Marines, Shannon Danko said she “would do it again, without batting an eye.”

“I just wanted a change in my life,” she said. “I ran into a childhood friend. She was home from Hong Kong. She was in the Air Force and looked so different. So grown up and mature. I said, ‘Wow! I want that.’”

Danko trained to be an accountant in the Marine Corps and said she was proud to support the military during Desert Storm.

“Whether someone is on the front lines or in an office, we all need each other,” she said. “War is a team effort.”

Though she is proud of her service, Danko said she has experienced sexism during her time in the military. People would often assume she was of lower rank because she was a woman and male soldiers – even those right out of boot camp – would at times disrespect or challenge her authority, she said. But, Danko added, she did not let these instances curb her drive.

“I was very determined. I was very headstrong. I knew that I and other women belonged. Women are not going anywhere,” she said with a smile.

Regardless of the challenges, Ms. Danko said the best part of being in the armed forces is the relationships forged through combat and a shared sense of service.

But most of all, on Veterans Day, and every day, Danko said she wants to dispel myths that suggest that African Americans are not patriotic.

“Look at all the Black people who serve this country. We had the Buffalo Soldiers. We have Black women who pretended to be men to join the military. We love this country. We want to and are willing to fight for this country. We just want to be treated fairly.”

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