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Home : News : Features : Display
NEWS | March 30, 2016

The journey to oak leaves: WWII veteran fights through adversity

By Staff Sgt. Natasha Stannard 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

U.S. Army Col. Aaron M. Dotson, a retired World War II and Vietnam War veteran, holds his military training class photo, in his home in Hampton, Va., Aug. 8, 2015. Dotson served in the military for 20 years, during which time he saw many changes throughout the U.S. Army's social culture. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Natasha Stannard)

As a young African-American U.S. Army private sat in a field hospital bandaged from head-to-toe, drinking a meal-replacement shake through a straw with bruised and disfigured lips, he couldn't imagine that experiences more grueling than war were in his future.

Drafted out of high school at the age of 18 in 1943, then-U.S. Army Pvt. Aaron M. Dotson's career began long before blacks and whites shared the same water fountains, much less the same area on the battlefield. The social implications of that time made his fight to both commission and gain acceptance from his peers the most challenging trials of his life.
Then Pfc. Aaron M. Dotson, now a retired World War II and Vietnam War veteran, is photographed in New Guinea during World War II. Dotson was a cargo checker while serving as an enlisted Soldier and later commissioned as a social work officer. (Courtesy photo)

The now-retired World War II and Vietnam War veteran recalls the significance of his career as an African American serving in the Army. His fight for equal rights within the Army began the moment he walked into an Army Reserve recruiting station. Having earned a master's degree in clinical social work in 1955, he picked up a brochure about conducting social work in the Army.
"The nation was going through a change, and the Army was a part of that change," he explained. "I told the officer-in-charge I wanted to apply for direct commission as a first lieutenant in the Army Medical Service Corps," said Dotson. "He said, 'Nah, that's not going to happen.'"

Dotson told the recruiter he had the right to apply, and a few moments later, he could hear the lieutenant tell the sergeant at a distance,

"Give him the damn papers because nothing is going to happen when they see his photo attached."
Retired U.S. Army Col. Aaron M. Dotson, a World War II and Vietnam War veteran, sits in his room in Hampton, Va., August 8, 2015. Dotson was drafted into the Army out of high school in 1943 and served in the enlisted corps until the end of the second World War, at which point he completed his diploma. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Natasha Stannard)

Unabashed by the comments, Dotson asked for the paperwork to apply and returned a few days later with it filled out completely. After the normally 6-month process reached 18 months without a response, Dotson was not anticipating a favorable outcome.

After all, Dotson was "raising too much hell," he said.

Dotson fought the system by continually calling and asking for status reports on his application. But to Dotson, the push for his application wasn't just about him.

"I thought, 'Maybe the next black officer won't have to go through this. Maybe I can set the stage for him,'" he said. "I'm relentless. 'Giving up' and 'can't do' aren't in my vocabulary."

To Dotson's surprise, he finally received a letter enclosed with orders informing him to go to the nearest military installation to be sworn in as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army Medical Service Corps.

With the letter in tow, Dotson walked to the same Army Reserve office that tried to deny him the papers to apply.

"I informed the officer in charge I had a letter I'd appreciate him reading, and to act accordingly," said Dotson.
A few moments later, the officer-in-charge said "I'll be damned. Hey 'sarge,' take a look at this!"

They read the paper together in wide-eyed disbelief, but carried out the orders as prescribed. Having conducted research on group work with established psychologists, Dotson was ready to take on his duties as an Army social worker.

But when he arrived to his first duty station in Monterey, California in 1958, some within the Army were not ready for him.

"They had a fit when they saw me with the coat on," Dotson said with a boisterous laugh.

Dotson said he didn't even feel welcomed in the lunch room. All eyes were on him as he walked by each table, until he took a seat.
"It was silent when I sat down," he said. "No one looked my way and I decided to sit alone from that point on, eventually bringing my lunch from home to eat in my office."

With little social support from the fellow medical staff, the new lieutenant pushed himself into his work. His supervisors and peers eventually saw past the contrasting tones of Dotson's medical coat and skin color, recommending him for accolades that led to his acceptance into the American Group Therapy Association. At that time, he was the first African-American Army clinical social worker to be recognized in that capacity.

"I refused to allow [my peers'] feelings toward me to impede my job performance, or hinder services to patients in need of what I had to offer," said Dotson. "I would hard charge and produce. I didn't have time to be impeded by their problem with me."
Even though he began to break barriers with his first assignment, Dotson found his battle was far from over the moment he arrived to his next duty station in 1963 in Nurnberg, Germany.

Dotson said when he first arrived to the hospital, he felt unwanted and was mostly tolerated. His struggle here didn't have to do with sitting in the lunch room alone, but rather being given an overload of work.
Retired U.S. Army Col. Aaron M. Dotson, a World War II and Vietnam War veteran, plays the harmonica in his room in Hampton, Va., Aug. 8, 2015. Dotson studied music at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., before changing his major to sociology with a minor in psychology. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Natasha Stannard)

"[That assignment] became my greatest challenge and a test to my survival skills in times of strife," said Dotson. "I felt the extra duties were put upon me to demoralize me and break my spirit. The more they oppressed me, the harder I worked without complaining."

Dotson worked day and night to complete his regular and additional duties, even surpassing expectations by providing marital counseling, child guidance, preventative psychiatry lectures and coordinating services with school teachers, officers and noncommissioned officers.

"I refused to focus on the negative atmosphere I had to operate in," said the veteran, his voice escalating. "I said to myself 'I am not giving up or giving in; I will not be forced away from here. I'm making my stand, here, no matter what.'"
Through his persistence, Dotson once again received recognition for his work. But as the praises came in, more road blocks emerged -- this time with his impacts to his family.

"I was having a great measure of success in my current environment until my 8-year-old daughter was slapped by the chaplain's son while riding the bus to school," said Dotson, expressing disbelief that this occurred.

As a result of that incident, Dotson asked his leadership if he could be moved into a new community, and his request was granted. Later, Dotson left Nurnberg with an Army Commendation Medal and more armor to fight injustices.

Even at his new duty station in Pennsylvania that armor couldn't stop discrimination that led to Dotson and his family being moved again. The hardest part for Dotson was not being able to provide his patients with continuity of care.

"The dynamic expansive group therapy program for amputee patients was disrupted," explained Dotson. "I was committed to those wounded soldiers, helping them to cope with post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), and helping them to transition out of the Army."

For the sake of his children, Dotson took an assignment to another place the Army needed him: Fort Eustis, Virginia, where he established an Army Community Service (ACS) and deployed to Vietnam in 1969.

Then U.S. Army Maj. Aaron M. Dotson, now a retired World War II and Vietnam War veteran, middle, cut the Fort Eustis Army Community Service (ACS) ceremonial opening ribbon at Fort Eustis, Va., August 29, 1967. Dotson stood up the Fort Eustis ACS, and regularly participates in ACS events to this day. (Courtesy photo)
Vietnam gave Dotson, who had been promoted to major, an opportunity to help others as the sole psychiatrist at a field hospital in Saigon, Vietnam.

Dotson triaged psychiatric casualties day and night as helicopters brought in combat injured Soldiers, and those who were emotionally injured from the effects of war.

As Dotson mediated race riots and guided Soldiers through the stressors of war, he noticed the effect combat had on U.S. Soldiers' compassion, unfazed by race.

"They saved each other's lives. They had each other's backs and built a strong bond," said Dotson. "You felt like you couldn't go back to the South and listen to some of the same old talk, because those people didn't understand what we had gone through out here. All stereotypes go out the window when whites and blacks are falling on grenades for one another."
Dotson expressed although he was glad to see such "color-blind" bonds, the reality of combat was the last thing he would have wanted to bring down the curtain of racism.

Dotson also provided assistance to the Vietnamese people in need of medical care by acting as a liaison between the locals and military surgeons, even coordinating the removal of a child's tumor.

"Word had gotten around about what I had done," said Dotson. "They called me Black Boxy," which translated to "black doctor," he said.
Then U.S. Army Maj. Aaron M. Dotson, now a retired World War II and Vietnam War veteran, is awarded the Bronze Star in Vietnam in 1969. Dotson aided not only the military community in Vietnam, but Vietnamese citizens as well. (Courtesy photo)

His experiences in Vietnam seemed to be the beginning of Dotson's role in races and cultures coming together. After returning home, Dotson experienced cultural graciousness from a white officer who invited him to study groups to better prepare for training tests.

"It was like a manna from heaven," said Dotson of Nelson's invitation. "I wouldn't have made it if it were not for him. I'm so eternally grateful to him. He saved my career."

Those efforts to advance in his career paid off when Dotson was promoted to lieutenant colonel in 1971.

"I will refuse to allow another command to pin these oak leaves on you," the general who promoted Dotson said. "I'm giving you my oak leaves that were pinned on me when I was a lieutenant colonel. They don't know what you went through to get them, but I know. You have done a great job here and it has been a pleasure having you."
A commanding officer, pins insignia onto U.S. Army Lt. Col. Aaron M. Dotson during his promotion ceremony at Fort Eustis, Va. During his time at Fort Eustis, Dotson established the Army Community Service to help new Soldiers and their families. (Courtesy photo)

All of Dotson's experiences seemed to culminate into a reality that accolades from his commands outweighed the struggles he encountered in the Army.
Retired U.S. Army Col. Aaron M. Dotson, a World War II and Vietnam War veteran, reflects on his military career outside of his home in Hampton, Va., Aug. 8, 2015. Dotson was drafted as a cargo checker during World War II and later commissioned as a social work officer. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Natasha Stannard)

"I have no bad feelings because [my experiences] came to mold my character," said Dotson. "By possessing exemplary character, outstanding duty performance, my survival skills and the teachings of my elders, I was able to make it."

Now retired and 93 years of age, Dotson reflects on his career as a godsend that he continues to relish in to this day.

"The Army was a blessing in disguise," Dotson said. "In spite of some of the negative experiences, the good outweighed the adversities. Today my life is richer and I am a better person because of them."