On Tuesday afternoon, I visited the Alexandria National Cemetery just across the Potomac, where I saw the hallowed ground where more than 200 Black Civil War Veterans are taking their final rest. I saw the grave of Private Adolphus Jacobs, who died after he was severely wounded at the Battle of the Crater in Petersburg, Va.
I also saw the graves of the six Buffalo Soldiers resting there, accompanied by combat Veteran and VA employee Melissa Bryant, the granddaughter of Staff Sgt.
Herman A. Day, who fought in World War II with the Buffalo Soldiers of the 92nd Infantry Division, and died in combat in February 1945.
As our country’s celebration of Black history comes to a close, this profoundly moving experience was a reminder to me of the rich history of selfless service and sacrifice that Black Veterans have made to this nation. From the thousands of Black Patriots who fought for our independence during the Revolutionary War, to Col. Paris Davis’ heroic actions in Vietnam as one of the first Black officers in the Special Forces, and to the thousands of Black service members deployed in areas of operations today, Black Veterans are an integral part of the American story and our fight for freedom both in the battlefields overseas and at home.
At VA, accomplishing our mission on behalf of our Veterans is made possible through the service of professionals like Melissa and the 118,000 Black employees who work tirelessly to ensure that Veterans get the care they earned.
From ensuring that Veterans are able to get their education through the GI Bill to vaccinating hundreds of thousands of eligible Veterans against the coronavirus, VA’s dedicated Black professionals are at the forefront of the work that we do at the Department day in and day out.
In a recent discussion between VA Senior Leaders and Retired Admiral Cecil Haney, he articulated that we can’t train our way out of the entrenched challenges that can hinder diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives – this must be a sustained effort led from the top.
While we must attest to and confront the history of systemic mistreatment that have been a fact of life for Black Veterans and VA employees for far too long, I want to close this month by recognizing the Black excellence that has shone through despite generations of racism and discrimination.
It is through the achievements of Black Veterans and the resilience of Black VA employees that we can stand today, ready to serve America’s Veterans. In honor of their service, I am committed to ensuring that VA serves the needs of ALL of our Veterans, and that equity will always be at the forefront of everything that we do.