Juneteenth both inspires and illustrates the impact of service

Learn more about D’Juan Wilcher, Lieutenant Commander, USNR.
D'Juan Wilcher
D’Juan Wilcher, Lieutenant Commander, USNR
Deputy Director, Veterans and Military Families
George W. Bush Institute
buffalo soldiers
Photograph taken at Fort Robinson, Nebraska, of non-commissioned officers from the United States Army's 9th Cavalry Regiment "Buffalo Soldiers". Standing, left to right: Sergeant James Wilson, I Troop; First Sergeant David Badie, B Troop; Sergeant Thomas Shaw, K Troop; First Sergeant Nathan Fletcher, F Troop. Seated, left to right: Chief Trumpeter Stephen Taylor; Sergeant Edward McKenzie, I Troop; Sergeant Robert Burley, D Troop; Sergeant Zekiel Sykes, B Troop. Original photograph from Special Collections, U.S. Military Academy Library.

As a Black man, I take immense pride in my military service, which taught me that we must advance the principles of freedom, justice, accountability, and order at home as well as abroad.

Military service provided me the opportunity to expand my perspectives and become more inclusive of the human condition beyond my familiar experiences. From civil-military operations to full-scale humanitarian missions in the Pacific and South China Sea, observing the desperate conditions of so many around the world was transformative. But it also reinforced my desire to make an impact on my community back home.

National service – whether civilian or military – is a powerful vehicle that can generate societal change and promote unity. Juneteenth, with its roots in liberation and the fight for equality, resonates deeply with the ideals of service and sacrifice that underpin national service.

In service, we honor the sacrifices and contributions of those who came before us while actively participating in building a more just and equitable society. Juneteenth’s spirit of freedom and empowerment makes it an ideal occasion to inspire national service, reinforcing the values of unity, commitment, and progress that are essential to our nation’s fabric.

We often fail to grasp the far-reaching influence our service, in any capacity, can have on others. But one thing is certain: Service, regardless of its scale, leaves an indelible mark that transcends time.

I draw inspiration from those who have gone before me to serve the country and her flag.

Consider this: The U.S. military wasn’t integrated until 1948, after World War II. But Black Americans have played crucial roles in defending and advancing the ideals and promises of the United States since the Revolutionary War.

During the Civil War, the United States Colored Troops comprised at least 10% of the Union Army. President Abraham Lincoln himself acknowledged that without the nearly 180,000 Black soldiers who served, “the war against the South could not have been won.” From the Buffalo Soldiers of the 19th century, the Harlem Hellfighters of World War I, and the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II to today’s military service members, our contributions have been vital.

These units all received second class treatment but consistently and reliably delivered first class results.

Similarly, Opal Lee, known as “the Grandmother of Juneteenth,” grew up as a Black girl in the Jim Crow South and experienced more than any person, especially a child, should. Yet she decided to commit her life to service, regardless of the overwhelming likelihood that she would fail – but she did not.

Well into her 90s, she lobbied for a national holiday on Juneteenth – the anniversary of the day that Black Texans finally learned they’d been freed from slavery two and a half years before in the Emancipation Proclamation. It became a federal holiday in 2021.

Military veterans, particularly Black veterans, have always maintained a conviction to believe in, and fight for, a more perfect union, recognizing “a more perfect union” as a journey, not a destination. The feats of these unlikely champions have a common thread in that they all believed that we can be better. Through service, education, and advocacy, they would advance those ideals for the betterment of all citizens.

As a Black man, I am a living example of societal progress, yet also a reminder of the unfinished work still to be done.

My relationship with patriotism is nuanced. I see it through a lens of critical love, perseverance and an unwavering commitment to progress. My story exists because of the giants before me who defended freedom and democracy worldwide and at home. I do not take for granted the life I’ve been afforded.

But I believe there is no nobler cause than service to others. It serves as a beacon of hope, igniting a spark within others to follow suit and contribute to the greater good, carrying the torch of compassion and opportunity through generations. Service can awaken a sense of purpose and motivation within us and reminds us of the inherent goodness that resides within humanity and the potential we all possess to make a positive difference. We seek to do that here at the George W. Bush Institute through our emphasis on the timeless values of President and Mrs. Bush of freedom, opportunity, accountability, and compassion.

This Juneteenth, think about how you can serve your community. Consider serving as a poll worker with We The Veterans, conduct a service project in your community with organizations like The Mission Continues, Team RWB, or Travis Manion Foundation. Identify what your community needs and fill the gap.

Even the smallest acts of service can have a profound and enduring effect on individuals and communities.