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Tuskegee Airmen return to war zone

BALAD AIR BASE, Iraq (AFPN) -- The Tuskegee Airmen know about war. They battled the Nazis abroad and racism at home. Now they've made their way back to the front lines to show their support for Airmen fighting the war on terror.

Five members arrived here Oct. 25 to interacting with military members, sharing their stories and offering words of encouragement.

"We're here to lend support to the troops," said retired Tuskegee pilot Lt. Col. Bob Ashby. "It's a rare opportunity for us to show them that their hometown, their home state supports them -- and that their fellow Tuskegee Airmen wish them well."

Airman 1st Class Charles Hernandez said he's glad the famous Airmen made the visit. They've helped give him a better understanding of his mission.

"It gave me a newer perspective on what we're doing here; not just at Balad, but as an Airman in today's air force," said Airman Hernandez an electrical power production troop with the 332nd Expeditionary Civil Engineering Squadron.

"They fought a battle both overseas and one in the states because they were black," the Airman said. "Yet they did what they needed to do for the greatness of our country and our freedom."

Airman Hernandez said, "They reminded me that we're here for a good reason and there are people back home who believe in what we're doing -- and believe in our cause. The Tuskegee Airmen are heroes and patriots and I was honored to sit and eat with them."

The Tuskegee Airmen formed in 1941 when the Army Air Force began a program to train black Americans as military pilots at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.

"It was an experimental program and we were expected to fail. But our primary objective was to finish the program and prove them wrong," said Colonel Ashby, an original Tuskegee Airman.

Lt. Col. Lee Archer, also an original Tuskegee Airman said the men wanted to do more than that.

"All we wanted was to fly for our service," he said. "We wanted to do it for our country."

Colonels Archer and Ashby and many others did just that, and so was born the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen. It continues to thrive in today's Air Force, especially at the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing, home of the Tuskegee Airmen's alma mater, the 332nd Expeditionary Operations Group.

"The Tuskegee Airmen paved the way for future generations," said Col. Dick Toliver. He is a second generation Airmen who joined the Air Force and the Tuskegee Airmen after the Korean War. "The legacy is right here, but it doesn't look like the original group. It's a collection of people of color and different nationalities. It's what it's always been, a reflection of America."

Just by being in the military, Airmen are part of the legacy, he said. And they have a responsibility to live up to.

"The challenge is to continue to improve because when you become complacent it opens the door to regress," Colonel Toliver said. "Don't assume racism is dead and the challenges are gone. Racism is about more than color so the challenge is to improve relations and build upon what's already been done."

During their Balad visit, the Tuskegee Airmen will see today's Airmen are following in the footsteps that have been left for them, wing commander Brig. Gen. Frank Gorenc said.

"(The Tuskegee Airmen's) work, their accomplishments, their collective experiences laid the very foundation of our wing," he said. "They should be proud of what they see because the Tuskegee Airmen of today are writing another chapter in the already distinguished history.

"For the Tuskegee Airmen," the general said, "the legacy continues in the air and on the ground."
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