By Chinta Strausberg
A veterans service specialist at Olive-Harvey College, Dr. Derek Tyson was a Nuclear Biological Chemical specialist and former airborne paratrooper serving three-years in the U.S. Army at a time when being black meant you were a target of racism.
While he never went to war, Tyson trained soldiers headed to the Gulf War how to survive chemical, biological and radiology attacks. “When you’d hear metal on metal, that meant you put your gas mask on.”
Asked what Veterans Day means to him, Tyson said, “It means a lot. We are one percenters. Only one percent of the population actually did serve in the armed services of America. It means a lot to be part of that one percent. We are all comrades in arms no matter what branch of service…. We all served our country,” he said during a Veterans Day recognition breakfast at the Rainbow PUSH Coalition headquarters.
Tyson said he recently went to breakfast and was talking to gentlemen who turned out to be one of the first black men to go through the Nuclear Biological Chemical specialist program. “I came behind him 30-years later. He told me he was one of the guys who paved the way for me to do this.”
Tyson said he was not readily accepted when he was in the Army. “I had a very important position in the military in my unit. The military has always been very racially divided.”
Stationed in North Carolina at the time, Tyson said his first sergeant was a “hillbilly, a red neck who could not stand black people. I was recycled through airborne school four times. They kept trying to make me quit, but I’m from Chicago. I’m not quitting. I’m not giving up.”
Nicknamed Papa Gulf, Tyson said he faced a lot of racial issues in the military. Having just talked to one of his former student, Tyson said one of his student’s friends; black man who was married, just committed suicide.
Tyson told his former student that he had “one mission and that is to come home alive. There is no reason for young men to be taking their lives and we are not at war. Yes, racism is extreme, but it is something that is not talked about in the military. It’s hush-hush. I said as long as somebody didn’t call me a N to my face, I could do this. I was never called a N…, but I was treated like one. They know what not to do. They won’t use that word, but the level of pressure they put on you” would make you quit.
“There are gatekeepers all over the world including in the military,” Tyson said. “Some people don’t want you to ascend to high levels. If you look at the history of our country, they didn’t want us to fight in WW I.”
Tyson currently works with young veterans and their families at the Olive-Harvey College helping them to get benefits for school including housing. “I’m giving back to veterans,” he said proudly.
This article originally appeared in the Jacksonville Free Press.