Army Enlisted Leaders Open Up About Personal Struggles with Racial Identity

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Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston.
Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston speaks with Redstone senior leaders about quality of life services on the installation during a visit Aug. 5, 2020. (U.S. Army/Alyssa Crockett)

The U.S. Army's top enlisted soldier is speaking out about his decision to share his struggles with racial identity on social media.

Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston released a short video in June where he describes how he came from a mixed-race family.

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"I was born in 1968; my father was black, my mother was white," Grinston said in the video, describing how his parents divorced when he was three years old and he grew up in Alabama.

"Racial identity is something that I struggled with my entire life."

A lot of people have asked Grinston why he decided to share his past, Grinston told an audience Monday at an Association of the United States Army Noon Report event, which hosted a discussion on race.

"I thought it was the right time," Grinston said. "If I was struggling with putting my story out there to share with the whole world, I thought well maybe there is somebody else out there that is going through these same challenges.

"It wasn't as easy as I thought it [would be], but I am really glad I did it."

Grinston and other Army leaders have been traveling the country, holding discussions on race with groups of soldiers as part of Project Inclusion, an initiative to promote greater racial understanding. The effort follows demonstrations and riots over racial injustice that spread nationwide after the death of George Floyd, a unarmed Black man who died in the custody of Minneapolis police.

Four squad leaders joined Grinston at Monday's virtual event.

Grinston said he found it difficult at first to know how to start conversations with soldiers about race. But, he said, he decided it was best to start with a prompt: "Tell me how you grew up and what was that like."

"If you don't know how they grew up, you don't know how strong their family ties are, you don't know maybe they are a really hard worker or maybe they didn't have much ... so it's such an important question," Grinston said.

Staff Sgt. Giselle Solis, a squad leader assigned to the U.S. Eighth Army, said she grew up in the Bronx, New York and that it was a "very tough upbringing" because she had to learn at an early age "how to protect yourself."

Solis, who is Puerto Rican, did say that she was glad her surroundings were so diverse as a child because it "absolutely helped the transition into the military. Because I was not surprised to meet someone from another nationality."

Solis was very open about witnessing racism in the Army.

"You see it in many forms; it's indirect, it's direct and it's a lot of times gender-based as well," she said.

"They assume you are a nationality of a certain race and then you open your mouth and your accent is completely different and they are shocked which is a lot of times what happens to me," Solis added. "They assume I am Caucasian, and I open my mouth and you can absolutely tell that I am Puerto Rican."

Staff Sgt. Akeem Williams, who is assigned to U.S. Army Europe, grew up in Hope Mills, North Carolina, a small town outside of Fort Bragg. Both his mother and father served in the military until his father died when he was very young.

Williams, who is Black, said he had not experienced racism directed toward him, but had seen one of his mentors encounter it.

"English is her second language and often when she would brief, people would start to shrug or give little snickers, and it's just ignorance, that is all that it is," Williams said. "You start hearing these conversations of 'hey, how did this person get promoted? You know, they can't even speak English.'

"It's one of the things that I have to intervene on and just say, 'hey, he or she was selected because they were effective and they know what they are doing, and it is ignorant of us to think that we are better than someone who is trying to learn our language."

Staff Sgt. Coralina Lucas, who is assigned to U.S. Army Forces Command, grew up in Puerto Rico and joined the Army when she was 19 years old.

"When I first joined the Army, my English was horrible," Lucas said. "I was very afraid of speaking up or speaking in front of people because of that, but I know my competence, and I know I am a good soldier so I kind of let that go.

"I do see racial bias in the Army, but I am very -- how you say it -- I tell people how it is and I will pull somebody to the side, let them know that was wrong, you shouldn't do that."

Solis said he has felt in the past that it is "taboo" to say anything about the racial bias she has witnessed.

"You don't really want to point it out, because you don't want to be picked on for that," she said.

Staff Sgt. Erik Rostamo, who was named the Army's drill sergeant of the year for 2020, said he felt "very blessed" to have grown up in a Minnesota town outside Minneapolis.

He agreed with Solis about it being difficult to speak out, calling the times he stayed silent his biggest regret as a leader.

"I was just in an incident where people were smirking about how someone was talking ... and I didn't say anything about it; I didn't stop it from happening. Because I feel like everyone is just afraid to be that guy, to walk up to someone and be like, 'that was inappropriate,'" Rostamo said.

Grinston stressed that race shouldn't be taboo to talk about but acknowledged that, "maybe I didn't say anything when I was a young staff sergeant."

He now regrets those silences too, he said.

"If it was open and blatant, it's OK in a tactful way to say, 'I don't think that was correct,' or 'could you clarify that.' Maybe the person didn't mean that ... but sometimes it's not only pulling a person aside, sometimes everybody needs to know whatever happened isn't appropriate."

Grinston said he has yet to have one of these discussions in which soldiers didn't talk about their own experiences with racial bias.

"To say, 'Well, I don't have an issue,' well, that is OK for you, but that doesn't mean your soldiers are having issues and if you haven't had these conversations, you don't know what issues are there," Grinston said.

"These are some difficult topics that people are struggling with, and they may be internalizing it, and they don't have any leaders. It's happening in our country, and everybody needs to sit down and have this conversation."

-- Matthew Cox can be reached at matthew.cox@military.com.

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