Throughout my life, the U.S. has wrestled with questions of race and today, the news seems to focus on little else. I’d like to believe we have made real progress. If we have, I know the Army has played a big role. From my first day in the Army, I have been surrounded by African-American role models. As much as anyone, they have shaped and molded me as a soldier, a citizen and a man.I owe several black soldiers much more than I can repay, and my admiration is only stronger when I reflect on the story of African-Americans in the Army. It’s a different story than mine, and I’m sorry to say that much of that story makes me ashamed. But it is also a story filled with courage, achievement, sacrifice and even triumph. It is a story inextricably intertwined with the story of America.We all owe much to the African-Americans who helped build, nurture and defend the nation. For me, they are embodied in the black soldiers I lived and served and fought with for so many years. I don’t need Black History Month to remind me of all they have done for the U.S. I only have to close my eyes and remember.When I was a private, my division commander was Gen. Roscoe Robinson Jr., who later became the first African-American four-star in our Army’s history. A veteran of Korea and Vietnam, he earned two Silver Stars, the Combat Infantryman Badge, the Bronze Star medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross, among other honors. A master parachutist, he was tall, dignified, and every inch a soldier. He led our division with grace and poise, as though he was born to the role. He blazed a trail for others to follow, but no one was more aware than he of the shoulders he stood on.Robinson knew, even if we privates did not, that black soldiers had served from the very beginning of our Army. They were there in the American Revolution, helping to birth a nation where all men could be equal. For far too long, they were cheated of that equality. Still, they served, believing—as Frederick Douglass put it—“once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters, U.S.; let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder, and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on earth or under the earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.”Approximately 180,000 African-American soldiers served in the Civil War in 120 infantry regiments and other formations, at lower rates of pay. More than 40,000 would die in combat or from wounds and sickness. Most were precluded from the commissioned ranks. President Abraham Lincoln himself described their contributions as essential to saving the Union. “Keep it, and you can save the Union,” he said. “Throw it away, and the Union goes with it.” Those soldiers could be forgiven for thinking that such service and sacrifice would earn them equality, then and there.Once the crisis had passed, however, racism and oppression resumed, though black soldiers continued to serve with distinction on the frontier and in the Spanish-American War. In World War I, the Army raised two divisions of black troops as well as many support units. Altogether, more than 350,000 African-American soldiers served, despite segregation and institutional racism that denied many the awards and recognition they had earned.As a nation and an Army, we had not progressed much when World War II came around. Black soldiers were still segregated and treated as second-class citizens, despite the example of units like the 761st Tank Battalion, which was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation in 1978; and the elite Tuskegee Airmen, finally awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2007. It wasn’t until 1997 that seven African-American soldiers were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for service in World War II, after internal reviews concluded that their service had been downgraded due to institutional discrimination. (Regrettably, only former 1st Lt. Vernon Baker, of the all-black 92nd Infantry Division, was still alive to receive the award.)About 125,000 African-Americans served overseas in World War II, and their contributions played a major role in President Harry Truman’s decision in 1948 to finally desegregate the military. It wasn’t easy, and many didn’t like it. Even an executive order did not change things overnight. Throughout the Korean conflict, the Army continued to struggle with itself over questions of race. Black soldiers and officers continued to suffer from overt and more subtle forms of discrimination, but now the tide began to turn.In Vietnam, the military suffered racial conflicts alongside society as a whole. In the Army, however, African-Americans now had a firmer foothold, with growing numbers at the top of the enlisted force and in the officer corps.The Army I joined in the mid-’70s was a more fair and just—if still imperfect—version of our larger society. I served with black soldiers and under black sergeants and officers. As a private, my squad leader and platoon sergeant were African-American, as was my platoon leader. As a new lieutenant, my first three platoon sergeants were all African-American veterans of long service. The best (I thought) company commander in the brigade was then-Capt. Dorian Anderson, who later became a major general. I served in the same company as then-1st Lt. Vincent K. Brooks, who had been the first African-American cadet brigade commander—the top-ranking cadet—at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and is now the four-star commander of U.S. Army Pacific. As a company, battalion and brigade commander, my three right hands were African-Americans. As a West Point instructor, my boss was Col. Fred Black, the African-American son of an Army colonel and a Purple Heart recipient from Vietnam. I was proud to serve during the tenure of Gen. Colin L. Powell, widely acclaimed as perhaps our greatest soldier-statesman since Gen. George C. Marshall Jr. and later, secretary of state.My experience was not unique. Most of my peers can tell the same story. For decades now, the Army has been a place where African-Americans experienced opportunities not always available elsewhere. True equality grows where character and competence are allowed to win, when the playing field is fair and level, and when race and gender stop being defining. That’s all black soldiers have ever asked for. More than most, they have always known one ultimate truth: The battlefield, above all else, is colorblind.