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Tuskegee Airman inspires Martinsburg students

Journal photo by Ron Agnir Retired Lt. Col. Christopher Siedor, of the U.S. Army, left, offers his personal gratitude to Col. Charles McGee, 94, a retired U.S. Air Force Tuskegee Airman, at the “Honoring Those Who Serve” celebration at Spring Mills High School on Monday morning.
Journal photo by Ron Agnir
Retired Lt. Col. Christopher Siedor, of the U.S. Army, left, offers his personal gratitude to Col. Charles McGee, 94, a retired U.S. Air Force Tuskegee Airman, at the “Honoring Those Who Serve” celebration at Spring Mills High School on Monday morning.

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — Col. Charles McGee didn’t let his humble beginnings stand in the way of his dreams, a decorated military career that began when he heard the Army was recruiting to train “colored” soldiers as mechanics – and possibly pilots.

Speaking at Spring Mills High School on Monday morning, McGee – one of the original Tuskegee Airmen who fought in World War II and a recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal – reminded students that the same qualities required for a successful soldier also apply to them.

McGee, who received several standing ovations from the crowd who’d assembled for a special Veterans Day program, said successful soldiers (and other people, too) make it a point to perceive, prepare, perform and persevere in their careers.

“Dream your dreams, never do anything less than your best. And don’t let adverse circumstances be an excuse for not achieving,” he said.

Today’s world also offers some advantages that neither he nor his fellow African American pilots enjoyed when they first got started in a segregated system.

“It was previously thought that we could only cook or do something physical, like dig ditches. They didn’t believe we could fly. They didn’t believe we had the interest or spirit to work and serve together. And in some cases, the thoughts were just outright racist,” McGee said.

In addition to considering the military as a career choice, along with aviation, engineering and aerospace, McGee challenged the students to make a difference wherever they go or work.

“Some of our freedoms are being eroded, and it’s in your hands to stand up and not let that happen,” he said.

Principal Marc Arvon, who helped host the event, praised McGee’s insight, saying, “I would like to borrow your quotes and put them on our wall.”

Students and staff alike rose to their feet when Arvon placed a red, white and blue knit scarf – featuring the school mascot, a cardinal – around McGee’s neck and he waved at audience members in response.

Army veteran Christopher Siedor also got the audience’s attention when he described how another of the Tuskeege Airmen had helped save his own father’s life. Consequently, Siedor and his brothers were born later and have been successful in different disciplines, he said.

“So it is hard to believe that these men could have been treated so badly, the same men who made sure my father came home. And because of what happened, I am here today to tell you this story,” Siedor said before saluting McGee.

After the ceremony, Army veteran Kenneth Hawthorne, who served in Germany as well as Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait during the Gulf War, was all smiles as he was reunited with his daughter, Naomi, who is a freshman at the school.

But Hawthorne wasn’t alone in his excitement, because his daughter felt the same way.

“I am just so glad my dad is here, because he’s done some very heroic things and I really look up to him as a role model because he’s done so much,” she said.

“And because I want to be like him, I might even consider going into the military. And when I hear how many other people have lost family members in wars, I know I am very, very lucky to still have my dad,” she said.

Teacher Carol Hamilton, who helped organize the event along with several faculty members who served on the Veterans Day Committee, also assisted Arvon as he distributed a personalized certificate to each of the approximately 100 veterans in attendance as guests.

Spring Mills High veterans were also recognized, including Chris Golliday, Jim Guinan, Leo Parlett and Chris Farmer.

The school also works with veterans in other ways, including hosting the annual Honor Drive Program. As part of it, students raise the funds necessary to take veterans from all branches of the military to Washington, D.C., to visit memorials and have lunch. SMHS also supports the Wounded Warrior Project.

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