Two former members of the United States Armed Services talked about the problems they encountered while serving the country, but said they would not trade the experience for anything.
Marine Corps Chaplain Willie Woods and Navy veteran Candance Willet spoke about their experiences in their respective branch of the U.S. military on Feb. 25 at the AARP District of Columbia’s Black History Month Veterans Panel at the national AARP office in Northwest.
Washington Informer Publisher Denise Rolark Barnes served as the moderator.
During the 75-minute session, both of the veterans made it clear that being a member of the military didn’t come easy.
“I was drafted into the military in 1945,” Woods said. “I didn’t want to go into the Navy because I didn’t like the uniforms and I was interested in the Army, but they had filled their quota. I read and heard a lot about the Marine Corps and I wanted to be the best.”
Woods said the colonel whom he met to start training “was more down than up.”
“He basically said welcome to hardship and ‘You’re not welcome’ to those of us who were Black,” he said.
Wood ultimately ended up with other Black Marines at Camp Montford Point in Jacksonville, N.C., and he served from 1945-1946. Between 1942, when Montford Point got its start to its end in 1940, more than 20,000 Black Marines entered there.
Woods said he went through racial mistreatment “and I endured that.”
Woods noted that while he lost only five pounds while there, Montford Point changed him permanently.
“I didn’t change physically, but mentally and spiritually it made a man out of me,” he said. “It made a man out of me and I’m here.”
Willet entered the Navy decades after Woods and said she wanted to go into the Navy to serve her country in 2007.
“I entered the Navy because I wanted to get some more education,” she said. “My family thought I was making the biggest mistake in my life. You have to understand that I was a heel-wearing, fly-wearing type of sister.”
Willet said an uncle influenced her to join the Navy, telling her it would be the best experience she ever had.
Willet made the decision and went through eye-opening experiences such as shaving off all of her hair and sitting Indian-style waiting for a bus to take her to Great Lakes, Ill.
Even though Willet possessed a bachelor’s degree from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, she opted to become an enlistee instead of the officer’s corps. She faced resistance as a result of being a Black woman and having a higher education degree.
“I was 27 when I went in and they thought I was too old to be in the military,” said Willet, who served in the Navy from 2008-2016. “They could not mold me like they could an 18-year-old. They considered me a threat.”
Both veterans managed to overcome perceptions — in Woods’ case, Black inferiority, and for Willet, sexism. Woods said many of his Black colleagues would get together and cry or vent their frustrations, while Willet connected with the Black women at her base to would socialize and network.
“We had to deal with more men than women and they thought that I was too old, didn’t have leadership skills and had never shot a weapon,” she said.
The vets said that young people should pursue military careers, with both adding that the service enhances career skills.
“You should go into the military and no matter how dumb you are, you will learn something,” Woods said.
Woods received a Congressional Gold Medal at the Emancipation Hall of the Capitol Visitors Center on June 27, 2012, along with other veterans. Willet used her military service to get master’s degrees from Troy University and the University of Baltimore and is presently pursuing a doctorate at Walden University.
In addition, Willet received the Joint Service Achievement Medal for career counseling, the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement medals for volunteering and mentoring, and an Admiral’s Flag Letter of Commendation for her fundraising and volunteer activities.