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Top African American leaders in MHS share similar thoughts on service

Military personnel speaking at a Pentagon press briefing Army Lt. Gen. R. Scott Dingle (right), Army Surgeon General and Commanding General, U.S. Army Medical Command, speaks at a Pentagon press briefing in March 2020 (Photo by: Lisa Ferdinando, Office of the Secretary of Defense Public Affairs)

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They are from different places geographically and followed different paths to get to where they are, but Army Lt. Gen. R. Scott Dingle and Army Command Sgt. Maj. Michael Gragg find themselves among the top leadership in the Military Health System.

The stories of Dingle, Army surgeon general and commanding general, U.S. Army Medical Command; and Gragg, command sergeant major and senior enlisted leader at the Defense Health Agency, share many similarities. For example, they both believe that they would not have been able to achieve what they have without African Americans throughout our nation’s military history who blazed the trail before them.

"We have been a part of the development, evolution, growth and modernization of the military since day one,” Dingle said. “African Americans and minorities have always been an integral part of our military. Even through the Jim Crow era and years of segregation, we still had African Americans serving in the military in phenomenal and historical ways."

Dingle said that he stands on the shoulders of those who have paved the way for him.

"They not only had glass ceilings, they had concrete and wooden ceilings that were keeping them from reaching their full potential, my father, who was a technical sergeant in the Air Force included,” Dingle said.

“Today, I find myself as the first African American male to be promoted to surgeon general of the Army and commander of the U.S. Army Medical Command."

Dingle, whose father joined the service in the 1950s, explained that one of the main reasons his father left military service after a 20-year career was the racism that he encountered.

That did not deter him, however, from desiring a career as a commissioned officer for his son. Dingle explained that, at first, he was not on board with his father’s plan. It took Reserve Officer Training Corps at Morgan State University, a historically Black college in Baltimore, to change his mind.

"Growing up in Prince George’s County, Maryland, there weren’t a lot of folks who had served in the military. I wasn't focused on military service. I wasn’t anti-military, but I had no intentions to serve, even when I had my own dad telling me I should do it,” Dingle said.

Dingle explained that, being a tremendous high school athlete and being heavily recruited by local universities, his initial goal after finishing high school in 1983 was to play professional football. One university that he turned down was Virginia Military Institute, due to it being all male at the time. That did not sit well with his father.

He made a deal with his father that he would participate in ROTC wherever he went to school in lieu of going to a service academy. Dingle admitted that he was not always the model cadet, but the more time he spent in ROTC, the more he realized the opportunities that the military presented and the wealth of knowledge he had at his disposal.

"They instilled in us the role that African Americans have played in the profession of arms and talked about the opportunities that military service creates," Dingle said. “I’m the 16th general officer to graduate from that small, historically Black college in Baltimore."

Dingle drew on the rich history of Morgan State alumni for inspiration.

Military personnel wearing a face mask speaking to a group of military personnel
Army Command Sgt. Maj. Michael Gragg meets with Tripler Staff at Tripler Army Medical Center, in Hawaii on Feb. 23 (Photo by: Army Sgt. 1st Class Caleb Barrieau, Tripler Army Medical Center).

"During those four years, I was introduced to people like (Army) Gen. Larry Ellis and (Air Force) Gen. (William) "Kip" Ward and the whole consortium of Morgan State African American general officers,” Dingle said. "When I came into active duty, I knew that there were many who had paved the way before me that I had actually talked to, not just read about in a book."

He said that after attending ROTC Basic Camp at Fort Knox, Kentucky, there was no turning back for him. "I loved it," Dingle said. "I graduated at the top of my class and, to me, that's when I was & 'bitten by the bug'."     

Subsequently, when he entered the Medical Service Corps, he found more inspiration in people like Army Maj. Gen. (Dr.) Elder Granger to look to for mentorship. “That inspiration has been fuel in my engine and my professional aspiration to give it my all," Dingle said, up to and including his predecessor as Army Surgeon General, Army Lt. Gen. (Dr.) Nadja West.

Dingle's Army career, which officially began with his commissioning in 1988, has been full of firsts, but he says it “all came full circle" when the same father that had stressed military service to his son, promoted his son to general in September 2015.

“It was one of the proudest days of my life,” he said. “The young, African American E-6 in the Air Force, who wanted his son to be a commissioned officer in order to break glass ceilings was able to promote me to general officer."

Dingle's father died three months later.

His advice to anyone thinking about a career in the military, specifically in military medicine: "Take a look at the opportunities and advantages that military service gives you. Weigh it out. What are your professional goals and objectives? Align those and see how serving in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, or Coast Guard can help you get there."

He said that his story is the perfect example of the possibilities that military service could present. "I, personally, had no clue, but it ended up being the greatest decision that I ever made."

Gragg echoed Dingle and said that the contributions of African Americans to the military predate America itself.

"African Americans have served this country going back to the Revolutionary War and Crispus Attucks, fighting and dying with the patriots,” said Gragg. “African Americans have always shown a desire to belong and to be a part of something bigger and better.

Gragg explained, that since the military is a microcosm of society, African Americans who have served have always been on the leading edge of societal change.

"There are things that were accepted and allowed in the military that were not taking place in society, therefore the military became the bellwether for the changes to come," said Gragg. “When we started integrating the military, it started to show the value of African Americans and their ability to fight."

While serving as a general in the Union Army, Army Gen. Ulysses S. Grant credited freed slaves who took up arms and fought as Union soldiers as one of the major factors in turning the tide of the Civil War.

Throughout history, said Gragg, groups like the Army National Guard's "Harlem Hellfighters" in World War I and World War II and the Tuskegee Airmen, the first Black military aviators in the U.S. Army Air Corps (a precursor of the Air Force) persevered in supporting a nation that, at times, wasn’t necessarily fully supporting them back home.

"Those examples, that DNA, translates into the successes of African Americans in our military today," said Gragg, who enlisted in 1989 and whose father was a Vietnam veteran.

His advice for a young African American thinking about a career in military medicine mirrors Dingle's and is reflective of those who have blazed the trail for the current generation.

There are numerous examples of successful African Americans in leadership positions throughout the military, present and past, himself and Dingle included.

"Stand on the shoulders of those giants that have gone before you, the Colin Powells and the Benjamin O. Davises of the world," said Gragg. “The path has been laid for you to be successful, and you can see yourself anywhere within the military structure. The only thing that’s stopping you is you.

"There's no reason why you can't be successful, particularly now in military medicine. Lt. Gen. Dingle followed in the footsteps of Lt. Gen. West," said Gragg. “I came in as an E-1, the lowest enlisted rank you can come in as, and I was able to achieve the highest enlisted rank possible and now I'm the senior enlisted medical person in the Department of Defense.

"I'm still just a humble kid from Central Illinois."

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