By Senior Airman Cliffton Dolezal
19th Airlift Wing/Public Affairs
Editor’s note: This is the second article in a two-part series that highlights the experiences of American Airmen who grew up in different areas of the country, and how joining the Air Force gave these Airmen an alternative perspective on embracing diversity. The opinions expressed below are of the author and do not reflect the views of the Air Force or Little Rock Air Force Base.
I grew up in North Judson, Indiana. With a total population of approximately 1,700, it has that very “small town America” feel. In this small rural community surrounded by cornfields, controversial topics were often buried with the crops.
In my hometown I grew up with almost zero diversity, which made it hard to identify with people of different ethnicities. To put it in perspective, according to the 2013 census, 91 percent of the population was white and 6 percent Hispanic. Only 3 percent were a mix of Asian American, American Indians and African Americans, which is only about 20 people.
An even more accurate description of my town rests on the cold, desolate streets of North Judson lined with bars, liquor stores and gas stations. The residents are born there, have their children there, and stay in North Judson. I felt like the only opinions shared amongst friends and neighbors were those taught at home, often spreading close-minded thoughts regarding diversity. However, this isn’t too surprising when you dig up the rich top soil and unearth the history of North Judson.
I didn’t grow up hearing many “Once upon a time” stories. Instead I grew up hearing accounts, some hard to hear, of our town’s history with racial issues and rights – stories of KKK rallies, houses being burned, farmers finding bodies in the cornfields and in 1924 the two local churches that were bombed.
When I sit and reflect about where I came from, I’m thankful to have found a different road.
My father, grandfather and his father all served in the military and fought alongside men and women of all different races and religious preferences. They all came from the same town as I did, experienced the same things that I did, but made the conscious decision to be different. I am proud to follow in their footsteps. I have seen and experienced more diversity in my three short years of military experience than I had in my previous 19 years of life, and for that I am forever thankful.
I was excited to move to Little Rock after tech school and learn more about its rich history. It’s no secret that Arkansas played a major role in the Civil Rights Movement in 1957 with the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock. The Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s was groundbreaking, and it led to the widespread extension of liberties to black men and women across the country. But sadly, I have learned very quickly that prejudice still exists today.
I know this because I have heard the stories of Airman 1st Class Jalen Ellingberg, a 19th Comptroller Squadron financial management specialist, who grew up in a very similar town as mine.
Paris, Arkansas, was founded in 1820 by pioneers who had discovered a large reserve of coal in the area, and as I walked through the streets of Jalen’s hometown, I was reminded of North Judson. Main Street lined with mom-and-pop shops, fast-food establishments and gas stations. The local high schoolers driving thoughtlessly up and down the narrow, downtown streets.
As we walked through the streets Jalen told me the stories of his birthplace.
Every day for the past two years I have walked by the finance office, where Jalen works, not knowing the stories that I was told as a child were actually someone else’s reality. But Jalen lived it. He saw it first hand and dealt with it to the best of his abilities.
Jalen and his older brother were patiently waiting for the bus one fall morning when a group of boys started verbally harassing them because of the color of their skin.
“I was too young to really understand what was going on,” said Jalen. “But my older brother was clearly upset, so upset he wanted to fight them.”
And that’s exactly what happened.
“Stuff like that would happen a lot, especially when I was younger,” said Jalen. “You get used to it.”
As Jalen started explaining some of the people and different experiences he grew up battling, I was reminded of the ignorance of the people I grew up around. Even though I was never personally attacked, I felt his pain.
Jalen said he struggled to make it through even a single day without hearing a derogatory comment. He found solace in sports, participating in football and basketball during his tenancy at Paris High.
He rarely experienced racism while on the court or the field. He loved it, all of it. The rush of taking the field, the pressure of playing in front of screaming fans, the goose bumps and nervousness that overcomes your body before kickoff, the experience.
But one Friday night everything changed.
While warming up on the field before an away game in a slightly smaller, even less diverse community, Jalen saw an officer approaching his mother.
“As my mom was coming through the gate, the local deputy confronted her,” said Jalen. “He asked her what her kind was doing in his town.”
When Jalen found out, he was furious.
The cop, who allegedly on several different occasions was accused of making racial remarks and threats towards visitors, was released from the department after Jalen’s mom reported her incident.
“I hate when bad things happen to people you care about, especially when it’s your mom,” said Jalen.
Jalen went on to tell me about a memory of the Ku Klux Klan marching through his town when he was younger but also of memories closer to home for him, including missing out on the experience of prom in high school.
“When I was 16, I had a crush on this girl; she was white,” said Jalen. “Her parents knew we were friends. They would come and support me at games, and we would hangout, but prom was coming up and I wanted to ask her. When her parents found out they said, ‘you’re not going to date a [N-word].”
When Jalen discovered why he wasn’t able to take his friend to prom, he was crushed. He didn’t even attend his junior or senior prom because the parents of the girls he wanted to take wouldn’t allow it.
But Jalen kept his head high. With the love and support of his mother and grandmother, he was able to make it to graduation.
After years of discrimination, Jalen raised his right hand and took an oath to protect the constitution of the United States.
When Jalen arrived at, Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, Feb. 5, 2013, he was astonished by the amount of diversity.
“No one cared what color my skin was. No one cared what religion I was,” said Jalen. “It was such a relief and a shock coming from where I came from.”
Jalen says he loves the military. It is finally a community in which he feels accepted, however, a painful thought still rests in the back of Jalen’s mind.
“Whenever I go out and I’m in uniform back home, people say, ‘thank you for your service,’ and they’re being extra nice—sometimes I wonder if they’re only saying that because I’m wearing the uniform.”
Can you blame him?
Although Jalen and I are on opposite ends of similar stories, we are both traveling toward a common goal.
We’re in the driver seat and hopefully through an open and honest dialogue our generation can shorten the distance and the miles to go.