Juneteenth, the newest national holiday proclaimed by President Joe Biden this month, has a special significance to people serving in uniform, no matter the color of their skin.

While Black Americans now have a holiday that celebrates the final death of slavery, the military has a day to reflect on the soldiers and sailors who fought a Civil War to tear down that institution.

"The men and women of the Department of Defense are honored to participate in the first commemoration of Juneteenth as a federal holiday," Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a statement. "Juneteenth holds particular significance for the United States military since it marks the date in 1865 — more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation —on which Union soldiers, led by Army Major General Gordon Granger, issued the famous General Order No. 3, informing the people of Texas that 'all slaves are free'." 

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Recently there's been a bubbling political debate over whether the military is going too far these days to accommodate diversity. Lawmakers including Colorado Springs Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn have questioned whether the Pentagon is more focused on diversity training at home than its foes overseas.

"The military should focus on our national security threats, not pandering to one political ideology," Lamborn said last month. "I can’t imagine a better way to weaken ourselves in the midst of a great-power competition with China and Russia."

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Outside the congressional culture wars, though, there's much to be admired about how the military has led the way on race relations.

From freeing slaves in 1865 to integrating its ranks in 1948, years before Jim Crow laws were overturned in southern states, the military has played a role in important change.

That's not to say the military hasn't harbored bigotry. The fact alone that the Blacks of the greatest generation went to World War II in segregated units remains a stain on America's reputation.

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But the military I saw overseas in combat during the Iraq war was something different than what I have seen in society.

In the civilian world even unintentional barriers segregate us too often, even as the march of history moves us past the era of outright racism.

In the military, those barriers are shattered by a common purpose that makes race nearly a nonfactor. When you're depending on covering fire during an insurgent ambush in Mosul, you don't care about the color of skin on the finger pulling the trigger.

It's not that troops lose their racial identities. Instead, they find common ground.

Whether you're a Republican or a Democrat, that's something worth celebrating. And as a society, still too divided by politics, religion, race and any other reason we can segregate ourselves away from our neighbors, it's something we should emulate.

Austin said the military is still learning from the sacrifices of the Civil War, when America's societal divisions cost the lives of an estimated 750,000 Union and confederate troops.

One bright thing that came from all that bloodshed was freedom for slaves.

"We are proud to build upon that legacy of emancipation as we work to defend our freedoms and to make real the full promise of American democracy for all our citizens, on June 19 and every day," Austin said. "I wish our outstanding men and women in uniform and our dedicated civilian workforce a meaningful Juneteenth."

Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240

Twitter: @xroederx

City Editor

Tom Roeder is the Gazette's City Editor. In Colorado Springs since 2003, Tom has covered the military at home and overseas and has cover statehouses in Denver and Olympia, Wash. His main job, though, is being dad to two great kids.

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