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Confederate Flag Ban At Marine Corps Opens Up Wider Conversation On Racism

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The U.S. Marine Corps recently banned the Confederate flag on military bases around the world. It was the first step toward what the commandant of the Marine Corps has called a difficult conversation, one about racism within the corps. Marines say it's a conversation that has never been easy. Steve Walsh with member station KPBS in San Diego has the story.

STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: From the time Marines enter boot camp, they're told that the service is colorblind. There are no white Marines, brown Marines or Black Marines. Everyone is Marine green.

STEPHON WILLIAMS: That statement, I'm totally against, and I explain it to a lot of the leaders.

WALSH: Stephon Williams runs a leadership training firm in Jacksonville, Fla. He joined the Corps in 1993 and retired in 2014. During that time, Williams facilitated many conversations on racial bias. He still works with Marine units as a consultant.

WILLIAMS: When you tell people that, hey, you're all green, it's just like saying, I don't see color. If you don't see color, you don't know who's on your team. So I have to know that, hey, as an Asian Marine, I know the cultural challenges you're going to have in the Marine Corps.

WALSH: Williams, who is African American, remembers walking into an empty barracks. His new roommate had a Confederate flag on the wall.

WILLIAMS: I told him, hey, listen - this is not going to work out; I'm going to have to leave. And they pulled me out of the room, and I got a different roommate. But later on, that person was actually court martialed for actively recruiting into a racist organization.

WALSH: Early in his career at the time, Williams says he didn't think about reporting the incident to his command. He feared he would be the one to get into trouble; other Marines felt the same way.

FRANCISCO MARTINEZCUELLO: When you go against the grain like that, you don't want to get singled out. You get labeled and outcasted, right?

WALSH: Francisco Martinezcuello is from San Diego. He retired from the Marines in 2015. Originally from the Dominican Republic, as a kid, he was attracted to the macho image of the corps. He remembers talking to a friend of his in his unit who was consistently being singled out for extra duty. They both agreed it was for one reason - his friend was Black.

MARTINEZCUELLO: I actually remember talking to him and apologizing to him, and it got me really emotional because I didn't do anything about it. You know, I just looked at him and said, well, you got to do it. But I didn't speak up.

WALSH: In conversations with a number of retired Marines, it's a common story. Ten years ago, Travis Horr was at an isolated post in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Like Horr, most of the unit was white. He remembers fellow Marines repeatedly complaining about their African American corpsman - the Navy term for medic. Horr says he remembers defending the corpsman after seeing him help save the life of an Afghan woman.

TRAVIS HORR: So why are you giving him a hard time? Probably not as much as I should have in retrospect. But, like, again, I was young and - I mean, I - you know.

WALSH: Stephon Williams, the retired Marine who still works with military leaders on issues of race, says it's still a difficult conversation to have.

WILLIAMS: First, let me tell you why people don't say something. They look at what they're willing to lose to do the right thing. We're a little different because a lot of people have power around us. But we talk about intestinal fortitude all the time and moral courage all the time.

WALSH: Williams worked in personnel for a significant portion of his career. He remembers white Marines who didn't want an African American president's name on their retirement papers.

Quinton Hinnant was a sergeant. He left the Marines in December after four years in the corps. Like other Marines, Hinnant says there has been change, but it's been slow. For Hinnant, honest, open conversation is the key; it binds together people, and it binds together units or shops.

QUINTON HINNANT: And when you don't have that connection of where you could talk to someone or have a friendly conversation at all times and not just be work-related, it could diminish relationships between shops; it could diminish relationships between people.

WALSH: Hinnant welcomed the ban on the Confederate flag, but he said the corps is no worse or no better than any other American institution when it comes to handling race. Meanwhile, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper recently announced he was ordering the Pentagon to take yet another look at how racial dynamics play out across the military.

For NPR News, I'm Steve Walsh.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.