ASBP: Breaking Down Barriers: African-Americans in Military Blood Banking
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Breaking Down Barriers: African-Americans in Military Blood Banking

By Jessica Pellegrini, ASBP Staff Writer
CORRECTION: The Armed Services Blood Program Office recently learned that Air Force Capts. William "Bill" Gibbs and Cecelia Watson, and Army Capts. Carmen Bell and Semone Dilworth are graduates of the Specialist in Blood Banking Fellowship Program, but were omitted from our original version of this story, published March 4. Although it was not our original intention to provide a full list of African-American graduates, we have gotten such an enthusiastic response from our readers. As such, we have updated the story and the correct version is shown below.

“Our Army story is part of the larger story of American experience and the fight for freedom and equality for all citizens and for this great country. Over the past 237 years, African-Americans have selflessly served in our Army, fighting valiantly to help secure peace for the future. Their example of courage and leadership has empowered generations of soldiers to answer the call to duty in defense of the American way of life.” – Excerpt from an Army letter signed by Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond F. Chandler III, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond T. Odierno and Secretary of the Army John M. McHugh.

The above letter refers to soldiers in the Army, but these sentiments can be found throughout the military. Military medicine and in particular, blood banking, has a storied history when it comes to the roles of African-Americans.

Air Force Col. Richard H. McBride, director of the Armed Services Blood Program.
Navy Cmdr. Roland Fahie, director of the Navy Blood Program.
Retired Army Col. Tony Polk, former director of the Armed Services Blood Program.
Retired Army Lt. Col. Wilbur Malloy, 1977 graduate of the Specialist in Blood Banking Fellowship Program.

All four of these men have several things in common — they have careers in the military, their work saves lives and they are all African-Americans.

Blood Banking Gets Its Start

The science of blood banking is a relatively new field of medical practice. In the early 1900s, Dr. Karl Landsteiner first demonstrated that the human race could be divided into blood groups and that transfusions between humans could be done safely. By 1917, blood transfusions were being conducted by the military in war zones, and by 1958, the military started training non-physicians to be blood bankers.

In the civilian blood banking community, African-American Dr. Charles Drew was making headway in his research at Howard University Medical School and Hospital. In 1940, he was hired by the American Red Cross to collect blood and ship plasma for stockpiling in England for use during World War II. He later established the first American Red Cross community blood donor center in Rochester, N.Y.

“After 1904, with the discovery of blood groups, medical doctors in many hospitals began to research this new drug called blood,” said retired Army Col. Tony Polk, director of the Armed Services Blood Program from 1984 to 1991. “One of them was Dr. Drew. However, all of them learned from the experiences of the military blood programs in World War I and World War II.”

Prior to the founding of the Armed Services Blood Program in 1953, the military did not have a unified blood program. Instead, blood was collected from military personnel in the rear of the combat zone.

The Turning Point

According to Polk, there weren’t many African-American doctors or blood bankers during his Army career. So what exactly was the turning point for African-Americans to have a bigger role in the military medicine community? The answer might depend on who you ask.

“A lot of what I know about military history as it relates to African-Americans primarily relates to the non-medical sections,” Air Force Col. Richard H. McBride, director of the Armed Services Blood Program, said. “The sad thing is, I don’t think African-Americans really got involved in medicine. I think it was probably one of the last areas of the military to actively try to recruit minorities.”

According to McBride, there were some factors outside of the military medical community that played a vital role in integrating African-Americans into all sections of the military — the Tuskegee airman program, Executive Order 9981 and American involvement in the Korean War. The Tuskegee airman program, McBride said, “proved that African-Americans could make good decisions during combat,” and “was a turning point towards racial integration in the U.S. military.”

Another turning point towards racial integration was Executive Order 9981 signed by President Harry Truman on July 26, 1948. The order stated that “there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin.”  Although, Truman’s executive order set the wheels in motion, according to McBride, integration didn’t truly begin until the Korean War in 1950. “The Korean War proved that we could fight together and that we could be an effective fighting force,” McBride said.

In Polk’s opinion, the turning point came a little later.

“Even though the military had been integrated, it was only after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and during the Vietnam War, that more black people were given the opportunity to be officers and leaders. Doors started to open for blacks in the military,” Polk said. “Not just in blood banking or medical, but the whole military.”

Whatever the precipitating factor, it is clear that over time, the military became more and more integrated as the years progressed. For example, in 1972, Rear Vice Adm. Adam M. Robinson, Jr. graduated college and enrolled in the Armed Forces Health Professions Scholarship Program, offering him an opportunity to get a medical education and become a commissioned officer. Robinson would go on to practice surgery for 20 years at naval hospitals and aboard three aircraft carriers, and eventually became the 36th surgeon general of the Navy and chief of the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery in August 2007.

“We haven’t really had a lot of African-Americans in blood banking in the Navy,” Navy Cmdr. Roland Fahie, director of the Navy Blood Program, said. “But I think we’ve come a long way. The military has been very proactive in making sure that there are opportunities out there, and in changing the paradigm of how people think — not only of African-Americans, but also of other races.”

Fellowship Program Opens Doors, Leads to Successful Careers
When the military started training non-physicians to be blood bankers in 1958, the Armed Services Blood Program’s Specialist in Blood Banking Fellowship Program was intended to be diverse. In 1960, then Air Force Capt. Roberta Huff was the first African-American to enroll in the program, initially called the U.S. Army Blood Bank Fellowship Program. Her success in the program helped debunk many of the color barriers developed by society in previous decades, but it would be 12 years before another African-American would enter the program.

In 1972, Polk was the second African-American to enroll in the fellowship program. He was followed by Army Lt. Col. Wilbur Malloy in 1976, Navy Cmdr. William Woods in 1981, Air Force Capt. Audrey Smith - the second African-American female to graduate - in 1985, and Army Col. Gary Norris and Air Force Capt. William "Bill" Gibbs in 1986.  By the 1990s, there was continued African-American representation in the military blood banking ranks with McBride and Army Lt. Col. Herman Peterson in 1993, Air Force Lt. Col. Ronny Alford and Army Lt. Col. Emmett Gourdine in 1994, Air Force Capt. Cecilia Watson in 1996, Fahie in 1997, Army Capt. Carmen Bell in 2000, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Toinette Evans in 2007, Army Lt. Cols. Harry McDonald and Audra Taylor in 2003, Army Capt. Semone Dilworth in 2009 and in 2011, the latest African-American graduate and fourth female, Air Force Capt. Nicole Ferguson.

Polk would go on to serve in the Pacific blood program during the Vietnam War and later as the overall person in charge of military blood banking in Europe. He also spent a year at NATO headquarters and travelled throughout Europe evaluating the various NATO countries’ military and civilian blood programs. After serving in Europe, Polk was selected to be the director of the Department of Defense Military Blood Program Office and would transform the various military blood programs into what would become the Armed Services Blood Program of today — which Polk referred to as “the greatest job I ever had.”

“In that job, my greatest accomplishment was coordinating blood support for Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm,” Polk said. “From day one of Operation Desert Shield beginning in August of 1990, we provided blood products through the end of Operation Desert Storm in March of 1991. We provided more than 100,000 units of blood to that effort with very few hiccups.”

Looking at Polk’s resume, one can say that he was a pioneer for African-Americans in military blood banking, but Polk said he attributes his success mainly to the blood banking fellowship program, opportunity and hard work.

McBride and Fahie both agreed that the Specialist in Blood Banking Fellowship Program expanded borders and gave African-Americans an opportunity to prove themselves.

“It knocked down some of those barriers that previously existed,” McBride said.

“The fellowship program opened doors for people like me,” Polk said. “We created a nucleus of well-trained blood bankers that have done well because of their positions in the military. After retirement, they have gone on to have very prominent careers in the civilian communities.”

One of the members of that nucleus is retired Army Lt. Col. Wilbur Malloy, who graduated from the fellowship program in 1977.

“The (Specialist in Blood Banking Fellowship Program) has played a significant role in debunking some stereotypes and ending some color barriers that might have previously existed,” Malloy said. “The African-Americans who graduated from the program have excelled in their military careers and have used that experience and knowledge to further contribute to the civilian community after military retirement.”

Malloy’s career was no exception. He served in several blood banking roles, including commander of the U.S. Army-Europe blood bank and the 655th Medical Company. Malloy also deployed to Saudi Arabia during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm where he established the first frozen blood depot in support of combat operations.

“African-Americans and many other minorities have been under-represented in the field of medicine to include the allied health professions,” Malloy said. “However, I would commend the military for making strides in terms of reducing racial barriers. The African-Americans I met during my military career of 23 years were extremely dedicated, hard working and gave 110 percent to prove that they were just as competent as their peers.”

Malloy used his military experiences to create a successful civilian career after his retirement in 1993.

“The military teaches you how to lead and accept responsibility,” Malloy said. “In my positions after military retirement, I have exercised these two principles continuously. I know that being a military officer has been a tremendous advantage for me in terms of problem-solving, staff relationships and constant focus on the vision and mission of the organization. The military prepared me for taking calculated risks, and the knowledge of how I can change things that I can, while understanding the things that I cannot change.”  

“The fellowship program gave us good opportunities — not only in the field of blood banking, but also in our family lives,” said Fahie, who had a personal reason for joining the fellowship program in 1997 after turning down the initial opportunity. Fahie’s daughter was diagnosed at birth with hemoglobin SC disease — a form of sickle cell disease that causes red blood cells to become stiff and potentially clog the blood vessels. According to Fahie, the disease can potentially require blood transfusions, which was his motivation for joining the program.

“I wanted to make sure that I knew the blood being collected was going to be safe for one of my family members,” Fahie said. “I also wanted to be in the forefront of research that could cure the disease that my daughter had.”

As part of the fellowship program, Fahie was able to work at the local children’s hospital in Washington, D.C., where he first met the doctor who would become his mentor and daughter’s pediatrician. Fahie said he was able to use the knowledge he learned in the fellowship to help diagnose his daughter when she was afflicted with Parvovirus B19.  

“In my first duty station as a blood banker, I participated in pioneering research that led to a Food and Drug Administration-approved method for extending the shelf life of frozen red blood cells after deglycerolization from 24 hours to 14 days,” Fahie said. “The experience created an opportunity for me that I probably wouldn’t have had.”

Additionally, Fahie said the fellowship program gave him the opportunity to do one of the things he has found to be the most rewarding in his career — teaching about blood banking and blood safety in both foreign military and civilian hospitals, and conducting humanitarian missions around the world.  

“When you teach (about blood banking and blood safety) in Cambodia, Thailand, Mongolia and Africa, and you are well-respected by others as a subject matter expert in your profession — that’s a proud moment,” Fahie said.

For McBride, the last 10 years of his career contain his proudest moments. After deploying as the U.S. Central Command Joint Blood Program officer in 2005 and then again in 2007, McBride said he was excited to see the work of military blood bankers from all three services — of all races — come together into a successful program.

“When that first bullet came across in Afghanistan and we needed blood. I was proud to see that all the things we did during peacetime made sense once we went to war,” McBride said. “Over the last 10 years, I have seen how blood has contributed directly to the highest survival rate of injured American warriors in modern American military warfare. I think a lot of that has to do with the military blood program, and the hard work and dedication of all of its officers and personnel — especially those from the former and current students in the fellowship program.”

“I have to thank the military for giving me the opportunity to do things that enabled me to be successful in my career,” Fahie said. “The military helped me obtain those goals because of the programs they had in place to help people like me.”

The Future is Bright
According to Malloy and McBride, a positive future has a lot to do with the men and women who came before them and the men and women who worked beside them. .

“The future is definitely brighter (for African-Americans in the military),” Malloy said. “I feel that a trail has been blazed for young African-American military laboratory scientists who want to become military blood bankers. They can certainly stand on the shoulders of several African-American military officers who have made a difference in advancing the field.”

“The sky is the limit!” McBride said. “I’ve been one of the luckiest officers in the U.S. military because I was here when the flag went up and they needed blood bankers and they needed blood. I am extremely grateful, and I feel extremely proud and lucky.”

Today, the Armed Services Blood Program provides lifesaving blood to ill or injured service members, veterans and their families worldwide. That’s something that Polk, Malloy, McBride and Fahie are all proud of.

“What I noticed as an African-American is in different settings, sometimes people are shocked that you are an African-American and doing what I am doing,” Fahie said. “But it’s good, because they recognize that you don’t have to be the same as them. You can be different, and be just as smart.  Everyone deserves an opportunity no matter what race you are.”

“Some people look at you and the first thing they see is that you have brown skin or black skin, and they automatically put you in a category and it’s hard for them to get past that to see what’s in your heart or in your mind,” Polk said. “But believe me, we all look the same on the inside — we all have a heart and a brain. The military has given African-Americans opportunities and it helped populate the blood banking community.”

In addition to McBride and Fahie, there are several African-Americans serving in prominent roles in the military today. Air Force Gen. Larry O. Spencer is the vice chief of staff for the Air Force. Army Gen. Lloyd Austin III is the vice chief of staff of the Army, and Air Force Gen. Edward Rice is the commander of the Air Education and Training Command at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas. Although, African-Americans are starting to have more presence in the military, McBride said there is still a ways to go.

“If you took someone who was in the Army 50 years ago and you show them the chain of command now, and they see Gen. Spencer and Gen. Austin, they would probably freak out!” McBride said. “Yes, we’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.”

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