JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas –
Service members shared their personal experiences on topics including race, gender, and equality in the military, and what can be done to improve opportunities for everyone serving in the uniform, during a diversity forum at the Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston Military and Family Readiness Center July 1.
Brig. Gen Caroline Miller, 502d Air Base Wing and JBSA commander, led a round-table discussion that included a diverse group of 13 active-duty members and a Department of Defense civilian employee. For safety reasons, forum attendees were spread out in a circle practicing social distancing while also wearing masks.
Miller started the discussion by asking the attendees if they had taken a Department of Defense survey sent to service members on diversity and inclusion, which included questions on racial disparities and discrimination in the workplace.
Some attendees raised their hands indicating they had taken it. For those who hadn’t, Miller encouraged them to participate in the survey.
“It has to do with the culture of our organization,” Miller said. “There are a lot of questions in there about what you have personally experienced, what you have seen, disparities among whatever groups of people. It’s a good survey.
“So, I would ask you, if you do have it, to take it,” Miller said. “Be honest with it so we can figure out what’s going on.”
Erick Vazquez, 502nd Communications Squadron Freedom of Information Act and Privacy Act manager, said in his 22 years serving in the Navy and as a DOD civilian employee, he has experienced and witnessed racial discrimination and bias from supervisors regarding who they promote and hire in the workplace.
Vazquez, who is from Puerto Rico, said he experienced racism while in the Navy when a master chief called him a racial slur.
“I was just blown away because I didn’t know what the word meant until later,” he said.
Vazquez said accountability is needed if things are to improve in both the military and civilian work environment. He told of an incident when a worker he supervised, who was a good employee who did his job, was accused of racial bias.
“But he made a mistake, and come to find out, he was a racist,” Vazquez said. “We did an investigation, and he was found guilty. He was gone. I held him accountable.”
Vazquez said he hopes people don’t continue to turn a blind eye to the problems that may come up in the workplace.
“We’ve just got to get to the root cause,” he said. “See something, say something. We’ve got to hold people accountable.”
Capt. Dayna Cheek, 502nd Security Forces Group Judge Advocate General at JBSA-Randolph Base Legal Office, said if opportunities are to improve for everyone in the military, the top of the command chain needs to get involved, be more inclusive, and gain the trust of all service members in their units and organizations.
“It starts with leadership,” Cheek said.
Cheek said members of leadership who are responsive to the concerns of their unit members can help to bring about positive change within their organization.
“I’ve been in (the Air Force) two years, but I’ve seen the culture change,” she said. “I’ve seen the culture change where leadership is inclusive of everyone; I’ve seen how productive the work climate can be.”
Cheek said for positive change to come about in the military, both service members and leaders need to work together to address the problems and challenges that will come up.
“This is something we all have to change,” she said. “The same things that my grandpa was fighting for, my dad was fighting for, and now I’m fighting for. I see it as something of a lifelong goal to make a change and encourage people to see it that way.”
Chief Master Sgt. Wendell Snider, 502d ABW and JBSA command chief, said as a black man he has noticed the difference in how he is treated when he is in uniform versus when he is not wearing the uniform.
“The uniform is a powerful thing,” Snider said. “When I go out, people thank you for your service. It’s great. But I’ve always noticed what it feels like to go out as a black man, without the uniform, and the fact that people still follow me in the store.”
Snider said when he has dealt with challenging situations during his military career, he knew he could rely on the support of his fellow service members.
“I need support from my Airmen because I’m serving my country in a place that I probably wouldn’t be unless I was serving in the military,” he said. “So, I’m really depending on my military family to hold me up because I have other pressures that I have to deal with.”
In her concluding remarks, Miller thanked everyone who attended and shared their personal experiences.
“No one has been in anybody else’s shoes except for their own,” Miller said. “We will continue to have the conversations and make it better. My whole job here is to make sure that you have the tools and have the environment in which to succeed, in which to feel included, and in which you feel you are making a contribution because that’s what it’s all about.”