Senior Master Sergeant
Veteran | 30 years in the U.S. Air Force
Enlisting in 1952, Clinton entered during a time of segregation and discrimination. He had to overcome a lot of adversity as he worked his way up the ranks, eventually retiring as a Senior Master Sergeant.
What did you do in the service?
I worked in Airborne electronics. And I taught electronics at Lowry Air Force Base. I was also a course writer.
What did you like about your job like what?
One of the things about my job I got to find out a lot about myself, and I got to travel quite a bit, mostly through Europe and Southeast Asia. It also allowed me to finish to get my degree. The nicest thing a lot of times during that 30 years was that i was able to take my family with me wherever I went.
What is the biggest reason that led you to join the military?
Well, I came out with a high school diploma, and back in those days, for a young black kid, there wasn’t much opportunity out there, so I went into the military.
When you were going in, did you think you would be in electronics and Aviation?
You have to take a test, and depending upon the scores you get, that’s what job category or career field they put you in, and it was all based on the needs. So, for me, I wound up in electronics, and there were not many blacks in that career field at that particular time, so I felt pretty good about that.
What were some of the biggest lessons that you learn while you are in the military?
Oh, wow, that is pretty broad. Well, the biggest culture shock that I had was being born and raised in New York City. There were some limitations to being black. I did not expect to find them in the military, but I ran head-on into them per se, and that was a kind of a culture shock. I went to integrated schools through High School, and even though a neighborhood kind of separated New York, you didn’t run into very obvious prejudices per se. They were there, you, but you did not find them on the walls and signs and stuff like that. But in my travels, especially going south, I had a rude awakening into the real world. That is when we ran into signs that said, “colored go around back” and “no colored here,” or you try to stay in a hotel traveling with your children and so forth back and forth, and you are very limited. So I took my family overseas for the most part, and some of that followed you, but they came up pretty well rounded in Europe.
Was it a different racial climate overseas and militaries and then here in the US?
There was quite a bit of curiosity. You know Europeans looking at your back and forth, but there is the stigma that we’re here in the United States World GI scared that overseas, especially white GI’s.
What’s your view on patriotism as a black military veteran?
I just figured by the time you went into the military and you served your country. You got home in one piece. Well, things will be a little different. And in some cases, they were, and then we will end up on the wherever you came from and other places that did not help at all. So, there was a better culture mix to me. I watched the changes over 30 years, and it was not such blatant racial limitations as they were when I first went in, but they got better.
How do you define patriotism?
Well, we are Americans. We are back Americans and consequently. I know we say to ourselves. Well, what nationality are you real? We are a strange breed. We are American blacks there is they do not come from any other place, but the United States: good, bad, or indifferent.
What did that role mean to you when you got that senior leading position?
Well, that was an accomplishment for me because a lot of people of color, it almost seemed like you were limited to how far you could go in the ranks. But I managed to get to the top of my career field in 30 years. When I walked out of there, only one enlisted man outranked me in my career field. I started in electronics as a student, and when I got out, I was a branch chief, and I ran the school. So, to me, that was a great accomplishment.
When you got out of the military, what did the transition look like for you—was retirement an option? e. With all those years of electronics—writing it, teaching it, back and forth—some of the troops that worked for me went out to places like Arsenal and got hired as engineers. And when I applied for the same type of jobs, they offered me less money than troops working for me. So that was somewhat of a shock, but it was not unexpected, and I have had quite a few jobs since then. I did sales, I was a policeman for a while, I did security, and I just did whatever you know that I needed to do. Then I wound up in a job that I appreciated in my last 26 years before I retired. I worked in Denver public schools. I was hired in security, but I did more counseling than I did anything else. Parents would come to me to ask me, “my child listens to you, so what can I do to get him to listen to me?” And I’ve had parents come in and say, “I’m putting my kids in school here because of you. I had other children go through here, and they spoke highly of you.” So, I had several generations of children in those 26 years that came from the same families. And these were children who were of different ethnic groups for the most part. The school being integrated. But as for the number of blacks, it was very low on the west side. It was all very rewarding. I had middle school kids, and those are the developing years, so you have a chance to make an impact.
What advice would you give to others transitioning into civilian life from the military?
I had to bounce around before I found my niche. I thought the police department would be like the military, but I found many things in the Denver Police Department that I did not care for per se. Then I was in sales with Sears for about 11 years. That’s an eye-opener if you are a commission salesman because it’s about which people choose to deal with you per se. But I sold electronics while I was there, and I worked in customer service, and I also collected bad debts for Sears over those 11 years. So, I learned a lot of things and learned a lot about people. But like I said, it is working with those children that were the most gratifying thing that I did as an adult, and I still kind of miss them kids.
What are things that people should consider before they decide to serve their country?
Well, first and foremost, you have to feel it. This is your country. It does not matter your race. You feel your loyalty. That’s where your loyalty has got to be: good, bad, or indifferent. I just never believed that I needed to go in the army and be running around fighting somebody that might treat me a little better than I got treated at home, but I did my part.
Do you have anything else you would like to share with us?
Well, I would think rather than I was a kid, like I said in New York at 18 with a high school diploma in my hand and try to see what I could do in this world, that military as far as making it a lifestyle choice is not for everybody, but it gives you a start. I see many black kids or young men I’d talk to and say they can’t find a job. I tell them there is nothing wrong with going into the military,