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Black Sons in Military Service

By Natasha Marie

     James Weldon Johnson said, "We have come over a way that with tears has been watered, We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered, Out from the gloomy past, Here now we stand at last, Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast."

Francis Scott Key posed this question, "Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave; O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?"

    Two very different cultures will clearly have differing perspectives of what it means to live in this land...of the free?

    The real test of freedom in our country rests with our soldiers who unselfishly serve in the Armed Forces. But what happens when a soldier realizes that the very country he’s “serving” might not be returning the favor? Are men of color feeling slighted when they put their lives on the line for those who have sought to discourage, discredit, devalue, and dishonor them?

    The “land of the free” is a place where people of color are bound by institutionalized racism, police brutality, mass incarceration, and the school-to-prison pipeline. Social injustice continues to plague people of color, while the armed forces continue to solicit their help with defending a country that in many ways has failed them.

We reached out to “a few good men” (sons of mothers who belong to the Moms of Black Boys United private Facebook community), as well as to their moms, to get their take on this noble career and how they perceive their own “fight” for justice while serving this country in the Armed Forces.

Enjoy reading and hearing some of their thoughts! (Interviews have been edited for space.)


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Mom: Kyra Ayres Jones
Son: Michael, 23 & Kyle, 19
Military Branches: ARMY, AIR FORCE
Listen to Interview


Question: What do you want the world to know about your boys?

I'm so proud of both of them! Michael started off in the Reserve, and his plan was to go to Reserve and then go back to college and finish his degree and later enlist as an officer. He is in Georgia now and very determined to finish his degree in Physical Therapy. (Currently a Dental Assistant.)

Kyle came home one day and said, “I’m joining the Army,” and I didn’t believe him! He had done 3 years of ROTC and decided in his senior year that he didn't want to do it anymore. So when he told me he was joining the Army, I said “Boy, go sit down somewhere!” He called me from the recruiter’s office and asked me to sign the papers, and I told him not until we talk. I had him talk to my brother to make sure he knew what he was getting himself into. So 3 weeks after he graduated from high school, he went right to Boot Camp. I was a complete basket case because they both left at the same time.

Question: In our society today, we see racial tension in the news and the police are murdering our young men in our world. What is your take on this and has this impacted either of your boys while in the military?

It has not impacted Michael in the Air Force. I was very nervous about them leaving home, especially Kyle because he is so young. I think people tend to prey on them (young boys) because they’re young and inexperienced. I am constantly talking with him about things they encounter. I think people tend to take advantage of the fact that some of these kids are on their own and they don’t have any experience so our lines of communication are wide open (while they're serving), and we talk about everything!

Question: What has been your biggest fear with two sons in the military?

That they won’t come home.

Question: Have you found the MOBB United Facebook community to be helpful to you?

Yes, especially while they were in basic training. That was the first time they were away from home, and I couldn't pick up the phone and call. That was very rough for me; like I said, I was a complete basket case. It was helpful to know there were other moms going through what I was going through with their children who could relate to me. So we comforted each other.

Question: What are your thoughts about your sons serving a country that isn’t always fair to Black males?  

I would rather that my boys had chosen a different path. I know that's selfish, but I do feel that this country does not value our young men. They don't appreciate them, they don’t value them, and they’re definitely not going to protect them. So I have to stay in prayer daily because this is the path they’ve chosen. I understand that they’re looking at it from a financial point of view, as well as they don’t have to pay for school and they won’t have debt from student loans. I understand that, and I support everything they do to better themselves, but I just feel that this country doesn’t appreciate their sacrifice.   

Question: Do you think your sons would agree (with you that this country doesn't value/protect them)?

Yes, I think to a certain degree; I believe they would. They’ve both been blessed that they have not been victims of racial profiling. They've not experienced racism first hand, thank God; so I don't know if they would fully understand how I feel about them serving this country.

Question: Have either of them had any encounter with the police prior to serving?

Kyle was pulled over while he was in the military and because he was in uniform the Caucasian officer was very polite; he thanked him for his service, told him to be careful and sent him on his way. I was on the phone with him when this happened, and I immediately went into panic mode and told him to put me on speaker. It's so sad the people who are supposed to protect us...that we're afraid of them!

Question: Have you thought about what might have happened if he was not in uniform that day?

I have. I was so glad he was (in uniform). Once the officer saw him in uniform his approach was completely different! He was speeding, so I’m pretty sure that if he had not been in uniform, the officer would not have been as cordial to him as he was.

Question: Any final encouragement for other moms whose sons are serving?

Keep them lifted up in prayer. As long as they have God with them, they’ll be safe, so I pray every day, and I encourage them to pray as well. I would say keep your sons lifted up, talk to your son(s) about everything, and keep the lines of communication open because they experience things that we don’t think of because it’s not part of our day-to-day lives.

Question: Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to share?

When my brother left home, he was like my son (age 19), right out of high school. He had done 2 years in the National Guard and then decided to enlist. I believe my mom was nervous as well.  Our father passed away when we were young, so my brothers didn’t have that male role model. But I saw the difference, and as he got older, I saw the maturity level in him. I think he needed the discipline that the military provided for him.

I also see that in my younger son. He was a little rambunctious, and he took every opportunity to go against authority, but I already see the difference in his attitude.

In some instances, it does help them to mature. I see a difference in my son, and he’s been in the military for about a year and a half.


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Nathan PenaNathan PenaNathan Pena

Mom: Dianna Floyd
Son: Nathan Pena
Military Branch: NAVY
No Audio Interview


Question: Tell us about your son -- something that you wish the whole world could know about this special prince you brought into this world.

Growing up, he wanted to be a Black history teacher, a sports coach, or a doctor. He was always fascinated with the human body and with blood. He is a considerate, loving, polite, well-mannered young man and always has been. My son works in Medical on a ship, and he inspects everyone as they enter and exit the ship. A few years ago, my son and I were on a flight to Houston, TX where we had to handle some family business. While traveling, Nathan was in uniform. It is customary for some airlines to bump military personnel up to 1st Class when they are seated in coach. That particular day, I was sitting in the row behind my son. The stewardess walked over to my son and said, “We would like to ask you to move up. We want to show you how we treat military personnel who serve our country. We appreciate you for serving!”  Nathan’s response:  “Thank you, but I will only move up if my mom can move up as well.”

Question: What fond memories do you have of his upbringing?

I had a village to help me raise this boy. My father, who retired as a Major in the Army, was so strict. We walked a straight line! He sparked fear in all the children and grandchildren. Whenever any kids in the family acted up, they were threatened with, “I’m gonna take you to your grandfather!” and quickly they straightened up!

Every Saturday, all the grandchildren went to spend time at my parents’ house. It was a big weekly family gathering, and we would all sit around and listen to my father teach us all Black History. This was required learning in our family. One of Nathan’s teachers in medical school one day asked my son how he knew so much about Black history. He told the person he was taught as a kid.

Question: How did you feel when your son told you he would be joining the military?

As his mom, I was in the Army for 10 years but came out with honorable discharge. Nathan’s father was in the Army, and his grandfather was in the Navy. We are a military family, so it would have been strange if he weren’t interested in serving. I really wanted him to go!  

Question: What kinds of conversations have you had with your son about interacting with law enforcement?

I currently work several jobs to make ends meet. For one of my jobs, I serve court papers for a lawyer and a judge in Greenville, SC. They wanted me to take a class to teach my nephew, grandson, cousin how to handle themselves (what to do and not to do) if pulled over by the police. Here’s what I had to teach them:  

Always say ‘yes sir, no sir’; be very polite; don’t be a smart (butt)! I got a baseball card holder for each of them so they could use it to contain their driver’s license and registration. I told them to always keep this in their sun visor when traveling. I taught them that if they get pulled over, to grab the license and registration from the sun visor with one hand; keep that in one hand and rest both hands on top of the steering wheel; when the officer approaches you, already have your window down. DO NOT move your hands. When they ask for your license and registration, hand it to them slowly and then put both hands right back on the steering wheel.

It’s scary we have to teach our sons AND daughters too.

I tell my children I want to see them (come home)!

Question: As a final thought, what advice would you give to our young men in today’s society and the fact that we’re seeing so many fatal shootings of our black men at the hands of police officers?

Dianna took a deep breath and said: Be cautious...pray…come home safely! I wish they (police) would get more training. The military should train the police force; I believe things would be better.

The military trains you how to hold your anger. They teach you the right way to do your job. A lot of these officers are not getting the proper training and I wish we had more black male and female officers out in the police force!

Why are they (White officers) so afraid? The way they walk up to the car and approach Whites is so different from the way they approach Blacks; their body language and voice tone is just different.

Question: What can we do to make them change those perceptions?

Have them come in our inner city; have programs. The police should meet the young people in the schools and get to know who they are. They should take more time to learn about our culture.

One thing about the military, when you must travel to foreign places, you’re made to learn about the culture and the laws of the people in the land you’re visiting. And while there, those who are in the military are like a family. Police officers can learn from this.


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Charles, Jr.BrianQuintinChristian

Mom: Alicia Arroyo Wilson
Sons: Charles, Jr., 29; Brian, 26; Quintin, 21; Christian, 18
Military Branches: ARMY / MARINES
Listen to Interview


Question: What do you want the world to know about your sons?

I have AMAZING sons!!! For one, being Black men, they are on the endangered species list. I have not had any of my children a part of the court system. They are all high school graduates.  They are using the military to help them get the education my husband and I couldn’t afford to give them and do even better.

Question: How do you feel about the issues of color we face?

I’m afraid all the time for my boys. Even though I know they’re on the right path, especially for my son who’s a police officer. He’s called an Uncle Tom for being a cop but he’s a good cop and a good person. When he goes on his calls he doesn’t see Black or white, but he goes out to help people and make a difference. I worry about him more than my other boys.

Question: Do you think diversity will help the police force?

When I was coming up, I came up in the projects of New York City. The Black police officers there knew how to relate to us. We lived in the projects in NY and we were poor, but our children didn’t know we were. These privileged kids are coming into the police force and they can’t relate. I’ve seen police officers going into grocery stores and helping moms out, giving them food to take home to their kids to feed them.

Question: What can we do to help our sons during racial tensions we face?

I do let my kids know, no matter what I got your back. I support you 100%. I’m here for YOU, and I will go to war for my kids!

Question: Have any of your children had an encounter with the police?

Quintin was being harassed by a particular officer. He was the President of the Advisory Board and I was the Vice. Quintin looks older than what he is and he complained about an officer always messing with him. I told the cop to leave my son alone! The Police Department knows my family but Brian had an encounter.

Alicia’s Son, Brian Wilson joined in on the conversation….

My parents lived in a housing area frequented by cops. I had a concealed weapon permit, which I had since I was in the military. I rolled through a stop sign, so I was pulled over. As soon as he approached, I let him know I had a permit. They called for more officers to come over. I told him he could take the gun. He told me to stay in the car.  I realized he was nervous so I got out and let him take the gun. They played with it, but I always keep a round in the chamber.   

Question: How do you think that would’ve gone had you not been in uniform that day?

I think it would’ve gone differently.

Question: What is your biggest frustration as an African American male serving in the military and now the police:

Other African-American males automatically assume, when I’m in uniform, that I’m against them. It’s almost as if they think I’m being controlled by the White Man or something. What they don’t know is I grew up on food stamps.

Question: (BACK TO ALICIA) Any final thoughts for other moms whose sons are serving?

Thank you to the group (MOBB United). I’m on that page every day trying to encourage others going through stuff with their kids and then receiving encouragement back. We as moms have to find our support group! We are so busy supporting our husbands and children that we get lost in the mix of trying to make sure our families are good. I don’t care how much more or less you have than me, I will treat everyone the same. With the way things are going now, we need one another. Us as women in general (all colors); we need one another!

I wasn’t going to join the Facebook page initially. It wasn’t until last month that I posted a picture of my son Brian and his wife, who is white and I thought let me see how this group will respond to this. The love that came from that post let me know this is a real group here! I am definitely going to stick with following this group. I try to go in and respond to the posts but there are so many!


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Marcus McKenzieGwendolyn and her son, Marcus McKenzieMarcus McKenzieMarcus and Gwen McKenzie

Mom: Gwendolyn McKenzie
Sons: Marcus McKenzie
Military Branch: ARMY
Listen to Interview
Watch Homecoming Video


Question: What would you like the world to know about Marcus?

Gwen: He’s positive, loving and he strives to do the best. He’s well rounded. He can pretty much fit in anywhere! He doesn’t like to just be sitting. He’s helpful. He’s just a great kid, polite. He always shines and I thank God for him. At the time I was carrying him I wasn’t ready for a second baby. It was prophesied that this baby was special and he is special. He’s got this special aura about him and his smile lights up the room. I have very helpful boys and they’re loving. They care about people and any time they can help someone they’re ready!

Question: What’s your greatest aspiration for your son heading into the military?

Gwen: I’ve always told them (my sons) to live and follow their dreams so they don’t have too many regrets in life. I don’t push them to do anything (specific). I want them to pursue their own goals. I feel Marcus is following his goals. I know he’ll be successful no matter what he’s doing.

Question: What went through your mind when you realized your son was going to the military?

Gwen: Panic fear and everything else, but I remember one time Marcus asked me: “If I went to the service and something happened, and I died, would you be mad?” I answered, “YES!” (Laughing out loud.) I felt silly after I answered that way, but I know he’s prepared and I know he’ll do well. I have to put my thoughts and feelings aside because it’s about him. I don’t want him to think he could have done something that I kept him from doing. I know he will be fine.

Question: Final thoughts?

Marcus: My personal belief is that not everyone will have it easy here on Earth. This isn’t necessarily our home. Some are prosperous, successful but they may be doing bad things along with getting that success. You have others who have it hard; Black people are that group that won’t have it easy. We still have to be strong as a people and know eventually we will be home one day. We all just have to be on the same level of respecting one another as humans.

Even if you have animosity toward someone, just know if you were in their shoes you’d want to be treated differently. If someone who’s racist told me something out of character, if they were in my shoes or I was in theirs, having that mindset kind of makes me think.

Gwen: In life you’ll have ups and downs. Life is not always going to be easy but you can’t give up - you gotta keep pushing. Those struggles make you stronger. For those who are ready to commit suicide, it’s just sad because they don’t know what was on the other side of that problem they were going through.

Me, growing up without my real mother and being raised by relatives, I was treated differently. But I believe there was a reason I had to go through that.  Otherwise my boys wouldn’t have turned out the way I did. There’s good and bad (in life), but you gotta push through—to get to the good!

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