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African-American Heritage Speaker says we need to know our "why"

Brig. Gen. Richard M. Clark, Commandant of Cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, was the guest speaker at AEDC’s African-American Heritage Luncheon Feb. 8. (Photo by Rick Goodfriend)

Brig. Gen. Richard M. Clark, Commandant of Cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, was the guest speaker at AEDC’s African-American Heritage Luncheon Feb. 8. (Photo by Rick Goodfriend)

ARNOLD AIR FORCE BASE, Tenn. -- The speaker at the African-American Heritage Luncheon Feb. 8 at AEDC asked the audience if they understood the "why" of what they do.

The event honored African-Americans and the Civil War and Brig. Gen. Richard M. Clark, Commandant of Cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, played clips from the movie "Glory" to illustrate how the first U.S black soldiers to face combat were not successful until they understood why they were actually fighting.

Following the luncheon at the Arnold Lakeside Center, General Clark talked with High Mach about African-American History, AEDC and how he discovered the importance of knowing his "why."

HM: What made you think of that concept and could you elaborate about how important it is for us to understand?

General Clark: If you are truly going to be inspired and believe in what you're doing, then you have to know why you are doing it. You've got to understand your purpose or understand your "why." Otherwise, you may find yourself going through the motions. It's something that I've read about, I've heard others speak about, and it's really hit home with me. It keeps me going everyday - whether it's with my family or my job - to know why I'm doing the things that I'm doing, and it helps to inspire me and to put my heart into what I'm doing. It's my mantra now - "remember my why" - and it has been for several years.

HM: How important do you think these kinds of events in remembrance of African- American history are?

General Clark: I think they're incredibly important. Not just African-American history, but as we honor different cultures of people across our country, the insight everybody gets from participating in these types of events is vital. We can all learn something from someone who is different than us. I think from a mission standpoint promoting that diversity is critical. Events like this educate people about others who may not be like them or cultures that they're not that familiar with. It just makes us better as a whole, and I want to thank everyone for having me here for this phenomenal event. I'm inspired.

HM: You spoke of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the Tuskegee Airmen and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and how they eventually realized their "why." Do you think that we're finally close to accepting that people should be judged by their character and not by the color of their skin?

General Clark: I think we're definitely moving closer. We still have a ways to go and racism is still out there. I hate to say it, but I believe that's the truth of the situation. We just have to keep moving in the right direction. I think there are constant signs that we are making progress, and we are most certainly closer than we were in Dr. King's day and even closer than we were a decade ago. We all need to keep in mind that all must be respected regardless of what they look like or what they believe. It's all about inclusiveness and understanding, and those are things that are going to make us better. I think we're moving in the right direction; I really do.

HM: Is this your first trip to AEDC and what do you think about it?

General Clark: It's really incredible. I had no idea of the details of your mission or the expansive facilities that you have. The most impressive thing, however, is the expertise among the people on the base. It is just incredible. It's such a huge resource and a treasure for our Air Force and our country.

HM: You're the Commandant of Cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy. What does your position consist of, and what do you think about the quality of cadets coming through the academy?

General Clark: My job is to ensure that the cadets are receiving the proper military training. We have a Dean of Faculty responsible for the academic side. We have an Athletic Director who ensures the physical fitness of the cadets. I'm there for the military piece so that when they leave and become lieutenants they're prepared to serve in our Air Force. As far as the quality of the cadets, it's a high as it's ever been. They're more savvy technologically, certainly. When you consider that these cadets are signing up for the Air Force Academy while we're at war, knowing full well that they will have a high probability of being deployed to go fight, it says something about their commitment to their country and their patriotism. They know what they're getting into, eyes wide open, and they do it anyway. I'm immensely proud of our cadets and what they stand for and what they've committed to.

HM: You are not that far removed from being deployed to Iraq yourself. Could you describe your experience there?

General Clark: It was actually a great experience. I worked with the Army, and I was the director of a strategy cell called the Joint Interagency Task Force. We had members from all different agencies: Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines, as well as the Department of State, Department of Homeland Security, FBI and several other interagency partners. We planned big picture strategy issues for the commanding officers. I was honored to work with the people that I had the opportunity to serve with. It changed my life; I had experiences there I'll never forget, and I was proud and honored to do it.

General Clark was invited to speak at the event by AEDC Commander, Col. Michael Panarisi. The two were classmates at the Air Force Academy and recently became reacquainted.

At least 186 people attended the event according to Jackey Gates, luncheon chairperson and emcee, who said she was very proud of the turnout.

"We were deeply honored to have General Clark visit with AEDC and help make our luncheon truly a successful and special event," she said. "The insight he shared is worth pondering and gleaning principles for practical applications to our work and personal life."

Gates thanked all the members of the African-American Heritage Observance Committee members for helping make the event a success.