Staff Sgt. Coralina Lucas’ first encounter with discrimination came early in her Army career.
The Puerto Rican native said she still struggled to learn English after enlisting in the Army at 19. Lucas said fellow Soldiers responded to her with sarcastic remarks at her first duty station.
“My English was horrible,” said Lucas during an Association of the U.S. Army virtual discussion on race Monday. “I would try to tell people something and they'll be like, ‘What are you trying to say? Do you mean this?’ And I'm like, ‘You know what I'm trying to say. Give me a chance. You know it's not my first language.’”
Lucas, a member of U.S. Army Forces Command, said Soldiers must continually make efforts to become more inclusive.
Lucas and three other staff sergeants from across the Army joined Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael A. Grinston to share their backgrounds and discuss race and discrimination.
After the death of Minnesota resident George Floyd, Grinston and the Army’s leadership pledged to host more discussions on race throughout the Army, the U.S. military branch with the largest number of minorities.
“This is what we need to do,” Grinston said. “These are some difficult topics and questions that people are struggling with. And [Soldiers] may be … internalizing it.”
Grinston struggled with race identity while growing up in Alabama and being raised by a single mother. Born to a Black father and a white mom, Grinston said he sometimes felt like an outsider because he looked different than other Soldiers. Grinston released a video on social media chronicling his story in June.
Grinston said he never missed a career opportunity or promotion because of his race. But he admitted he heard some inappropriate comments during his career.
“People would say things to me that should never have been said anywhere,” Grinston said.
“I got to see another side of people. I really wish I had just spoken up a little bit more. When you're trying to fit in as a young staff sergeant, it was hard, especially in the ‘80s and the ‘90s.
“But I heard the jokes. I heard the comments, maybe because I looked a little different.”
Staff Sgt. Erik Rostamo recently experienced one of his biggest regrets as an Army leader.
The Army’s 2020 Drill Sergeant of the Year witnessed an incident where fellow Soldiers said something discriminatory about a fellow Soldier while the Soldier briefed his unit. No one attempted to stop the behavior, including Rostamo. The staff sergeant said he feared being seen as weak in front of the other Soldiers.
Rostamo said Soldiers must act in those situations.
“I didn't stop it from happening,” he said. “I feel like everyone was just afraid to be that guy to walk up to someone and be like, ‘that was inappropriate.’”
Grinston admitted that as a young staff sergeant, he also worried that fellow Soldiers may see him differently if he spoke against his peers. The SMA said Soldiers can help quell unethical behavior by having the courage to overcome their fear and tell fellow Soldiers to stop.
“Eventually, I got pretty comfortable making those corrections and the older I got, the less I tolerated it,” Grinston said. “So it's OK to stand out. And if people judge you for that, then they need to be corrected.”
Staff Sgt. Akeem Williams, assigned to U.S. Army Europe, remembers the uneasiness he experienced while attending a briefing by one of his mentors, a female NCO who had adopted English as her second language.
As she spoke to a group of Soldiers in Williams’ unit he recalled the snickering and smirks he saw on the other Soldiers as they reacted to her manner of speech. Staff Sgt. Giselle Solis of U.S. Eighth Army, who is also of Puerto Rican descent, said she has experienced similar discrimination in her career.
“It's just ignorance. That's all it is,” Williams said. “This NCO was very effective and very knowledgeable, but you could tell -- you could feel the tension in the room that something [wasn’t] right.”
If Soldiers believe they have experienced discrimination they should report the incident to leadership.
“It shouldn't be taboo to talk about,” Grinston said. “It's OK to ask the question.”
Grinston, who has held discussions on race at different installations since June, said the conversations must continue to change unconscious bias and achieve mutual understanding.
He reiterated that understanding a fellow Soldier’s background can help remove unconscious bias. Grinston said a research study revealed that promotion boards unknowingly harbor bias when board members look at photos in promotion packets. That led to the service choosing to remove official photos from all ranks during promotion boards in June.