The following article originally appeared in the February 2012 edition of the DANTES Information Bulletin.
Elizabeth Eckford is one of the original Little Rock Nine, the first African-American students enrolled in the previously all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., during enforced desegregation of the public school system. 2012 marks the 55th anniversary of this event. But, did you know that perhaps one of the most recognized members of the Little Rock Nine served in the U. S. Army? Many don’t.
Of interest to personnel in education is the fact that Eckford did not have enough credits to earn a high school degree after Governor Orval Faubus shut down Central High School in 1958 to prevent the desegregation of the school, forcing Eckford to be home schooled for a year. When an Army recruiter scouted Eckford, she was required to take the GED because the Army would not take anyone without a high school diploma. To avoid having to take a class prior to taking the GED (a requirement in Little Rock), she was driven to another county to take it, successfully obtained her GED and was allowed to join the Army.
In a recent conversation, she referred to her military experience as one of her “most important, untold stories.” Eckford jokingly says she spent “4 years, 9 months and 21 days in the Army…but who is counting?” She credits the experience as being a wonderful time of independence, growth and development as a proud member of the Women’s Army Corps (WACs), from 1967 to 1971.
Today, the Army National Guard (ARNG) has a program entitled GED Plus housed on Camp Robinson at the Professional Education Center in Little Rock, Ark., not far from where Eckford lives. GED Plus prepares students to take their GED exam and potentially enter the military Service. This offers the ARNG the opportunity to recruit, train and retain quality applicants who would otherwise be ineligible for Service. More than 11,000 Soldiers have graduated since the program’s inception in 2006. Former Director of the Army National Guard, retired Lt. Gen. Clyde A. Vaughn, a GED holder himself, provided the vision for the program. He saw the potential of a new and untapped recruiting source that could contribute to American society. The program helped the ARNG meet end-strength and readiness goals and has been instrumental in maintaining the National Guard Operational Force.
As with the experiences of Eckford and the student-Soldiers of the Professional Education Center, education was directly correlated to their goal of serving in the military. By obtaining their GED, they accomplished their vocational goal of becoming Soldiers. Similarly, Service members and Department of Defense personnel are encouraged to assess where it is that they are and determine what degree or credential it will take to obtain their future goal. Ultimately, regardless of where you start, with effort and commitment like that of Eckford and the GED Plus student-Soldiers, you have the opportunity to achieve your personal, professional and vocational goals.
As an aside, I’d like to thank Eckford and those like her who sacrificed so much to fight for education for all. Eckford continues to travel across the country sharing her experiences in the hopes of promoting unity, the importance of education, and the pursuit of one’s goals despite overwhelming obstacles.