An Air Force education in human relations

  • Published
  • By Senior Master Sgt (Ret) Steven Heuring
  • 30th Space Wing Public Affairs

When I enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 1973, I had the standard prejudices common to the rural, southern Indiana small town in which I was raised. I was racist, homophobic, misogynistic, and white privileged without any conscious thought of the basis for these beliefs.

Over the course of 26 years of active duty and another 20 years of Air Force civil service, I experienced a fundamental transformation in my thinking and attitudes towards my fellow human beings, my fellow Airmen. Over time, I realized that I simply had no justification for harboring such negative beliefs.

It’s been said that our military is a reflection of our society, and I believe that to be true. But I also believe that over the decades, our military services have risen to the challenge of trying to correct within our own ranks what is systemically wrong within our society with regards to human relations.

The latest current events truly pain me to know that I could lose any number of my friends to a violent death for the simple fact of their skin color. Sometimes, it seems as if we Americans haven’t learned anything from our history. Or, that we no longer embrace the idea of the Golden Rule that I recall used to be taught in grade school, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

We all want and deserve equal treatment and opportunity regardless of our age, race, color, sex, creed, religion or national origin, but sadly for too many, that simply isn’t their reality.

Growing up in the 1960s, my worldview and opinions were formed by what I saw on television, heard on the radio, read in the print media, and most assuredly, the commentary I overheard from the older kids and adults. During this period of my life, there was considerable social and political unrest within the U.S. resulting in numerous protest marches and demonstrations. The Vietnam Conflict was going strong during this period, and student protests against the war and the draft were common.

I do not recall at any time during my high school years any of these subjects being discussed in class. Thinking about it now makes me realize what a wasted opportunity it was to not have a meaningful teaching moment for that generation of students. 

We have no control over the family we’re born into, how we are raised, or where we are raised, but we do not have to be chained to its negative aspects for our whole lives either. We can change our thinking and our attitude through education and diverse experiences. 

Throughout my career, I was afforded that education, but it wasn’t just the formal training in human relations that changed my attitude; it was the long list of wonderful folks I was able to work with during each of my assignments. Over time, these friends and colleagues served to totally dispel the prejudicial notions that I may have held about them.

By the time I graduated high school, I had learned all the more common racial, ethnic and sexually oriented pejorative epithets. I used them freely amongst my white friends. We mostly did so in a teasing manner to get a rise out of each other. This was the type of gutter talk that one would use with your buddies and never in the presence of polite or mixed company. Even though we were on the verge of adulthood, we had no real understanding of how truly hurtful these words could be to non-whites, women or the LGBTQ+ community. We even uttered terrible jokes about folks who were a mirror image of us but happened to live on the other side of the river.    

So, this is the starting point of a raw recruit with which the U.S. Air Force would have to work—a young 17 year old kid out of the cornfields of southern Indiana, full of excitement about what the future may hold, and a mind full of biases, stereotypes, prejudices, racism and a limited knowledge of social graces. Thankfully, the one thing I didn’t have was any deep seated animosity towards anyone or group. I also didn’t have an inkling of an idea of just how bad the lives had been for some of my fellow Airmen.

My service began on June 11, 1973, the day I arrived Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. This was only five days after graduating from high school.

My first assignment was at Tinker AFB, Okla., and by the time I entered service, the Air Force had created a special program to address the issues caused by deteriorating race relations. Each base had a Social Actions Office, with the goal of finding a solution to this growing problem. They certainly had their hands full trying to educate me and my like-minded Airmen.  

Throughout my career, I participated in a number of human relations training classes. They evolved over the years to be more inclusive of other groups being discriminated against. Whether the courses were taught locally or at each level of professional military education, each class brought me and my fellow Airmen to a fuller and better understanding of the other members with which we served.

It doesn’t matter what your upbringing happened to be, and it shouldn’t be used as an excuse for bad behavior. My experience has shown me that through education and an open mind, you can learn to get past your prejudices. 

Step one is recognition. I was able to recognize my prejudices and face them head on with the education and experiences provided by the Air Force. This by no means is meant to insinuate that we, the Air Force, have it all figured out. We can and should do better as we navigate today’s issues. I am certainly grateful for having the opportunity of an extended military career for many reasons, but none are more important to me than the fact that I believe I became a better person because of it.

When I observe my children and grandchildren and others of their generation, I have high confidence we are heading in the right direction.  I sense that they truly get it, that we are all human beings deserving of respect, equal opportunity and treatment.

My hope is that our current climate leads to even more discussion, education, compassion and transformation within the Air Force. Our country, our mission, and most importantly, our fellow Wingmen depend on it.