UPDATED: 10:00 a.m. EST, Nov. 11, 2023
While Friday marked the annual observation of the Veterans Day holiday to celebrate and honor America’s men and women who served the country in the military, Saturday — November 11th — is the actual day designated to salute former members of the armed forces. Originating in 1919 by President Woodrow Wilson, Veterans Day honors those selfless Americans who sacrificed their lives to defend and fight for the country.
That esteemed group includes a number of notable celebrities and famous Black folks who also served in the U.S. military.
However, there isn’t always a nuanced image of veterans and we must as a nation remember that they have come — and are still coming — in all colors and backgrounds.
There are plenty of familiar Black people who took time out of their lives to serve in the United States armed forces.
Black people broke the United States’ military color barrier in the 1700s when Crispus Attucks became the first person to die in the Revolutionary War during what would come to be known as the Boston Massacre. Following that, thousands of Black soldiers who were slaves as well as free men fought in the Continental Army and state militias during America’s war for independence from Great Britain.
That trend of Black people serving in the United States military has only flourished over the past centuries, with many emerging as war heroes. Some of them have gone on to become famous for other things, from serving in presidential administrations to becoming global pop stars to making iconic films and much, much more.
Scroll down and keep reading to find a comprehensive photo gallery of some African American former servicemen and women whom you already know about, and probably — maybe — just a few who you had no clue enlisted and served in one of the United States’ five branches of the armed forces: the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines or Coast Guard.
1. Montel WilliamsSource:Getty
Well before becoming known for having his own talk show, Williams enlisted in the U.S. Marines after graduating high school in 1974. He took basic training at Parris Island, South Carolina, where he was promoted to platoon guide. After basic training, he was sent to the Desert Warfare Training Center at Twenty-nine Palms, near Palm Springs, California. Following that he enrolled in the U.S. Naval Academy and enlisted in the navy, where he ultimately left with the rank of lieutenant and received the Navy Achievement Medal, the Meritorious Service Medal, and the Navy Commendation Medal.
2. Charlie RangelSource:Getty
Before representing Harlem for decades in Congress, Rangle earned a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for his service in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, where he led a group of soldiers out of a deadly Chinese army encirclement during the Battle of Kunu-ri in 1950.
Before becoming a successful comedian and actor, Sinbad served in the United States Air Force as a boom operator aboard KC-135 Stratotankers.
4. MC HammerSource:Getty
Before selling millions of records as a global rap star, MC Hammer served as a Third Class Petty Officer in the U.S. Navy.
Before becoming a mega pop star, Shaggy served in the United States Marine Corps as a Field Artillery Cannon Crewman and also served with a Field Artillery Battery in the 10th Marine Regiment during the Persian Gulf War.
6. Mr. TSource:Getty
Before becoming an iconic actor in the 1980s, the mohawked Mr. T served as a military policeman in the Army.
7. Morgan FreemanSource:Getty
Freeman was an Airman 1st Class in the Air Force before becoming an Oscar Award-winning actor.
8. Harry BelafonteSource:Getty
The singer and activist served in the U.S. Navy during World War II.
9. James Earl JonesSource:Getty
Jones enrolled in ROTC at the University of Michigan before joining the Army during the Korean War, going on to become a second lieutenant before being honorably discharged.
10. Colin PowellSource:Getty
Before becoming Secretary of State, Powell had a literal lifetime of military service from college in the 1950s until his retirement in the 1990s.
Before conquering the worlds of hip-hop and Hollywood, Ice-T joined the Army in 1979 and spent four years as a soldier.
12. Marvin Gaye
“When he was 17 years old, Marvin ran away from home to join the U.S. Air Force. Gaye had trouble following orders from his strict sergeant and was honorably discharged in 1956.”
13. Jimi Hendrix
“Brought up in a broken home in Seattle, young James Marshall Hendrix’s stint in the Army wasn’t necessarily voluntary: he was already honing his guitar skills in 1961 when a run-in with the law over stolen cars led to a choice: he could either spend two years in prison or join the Army. He enlisted on May 31, 1961 and was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division, where he was stationed in Fort Campbell, Kentucky.”
14. Berry Gordy
“Gordy served in the U.S. Army’s 58th Field Artillery Battalion, 3rd Infantry Division from 1951 until 1953, also serving as a chaplain’s assistant, playing the organ at religious services. After discharge from military service, he began writing songs and opened 3-D Record Mart, which mostly sold jazz music.”
15. Sheryl Underwood
“Comedian and actress Sheryl Underwood enlisted in the Air Force as a field medic in 1981, after graduating from high school in Atwater, California.
“Basic training was at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, where she couldn’t even run a mile upon arrival. But through encouragement by her drill instructors, she was able to complete the challenging physical requirements.
“Subsequent duty stations included Travis AFB, California; Maxwell AFB, Alabama; Sheppard AFB, Texas; and, Castle AFB, California.
“Later, she moved to Chicago and joined the O’Hare Air Reserve Station, an Air Force Reserve unit at O’Hare Field.
“While there, she deployed in support of several exercises that included two Exercise Reforgers in West Germany and Team Spirit in South Korea.”
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