Marine Corps LTG Vince Stewart: An appreciation

Some interviews stand out in my mind years later. Among them, one with retired Marine Corps Lieutenant General Vincent Stewart. He appeared on the Federal Drive in August of 2020 and died yesterday at 64 in Florida. He retired in 2018, after 38 years in the Corps, having served as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and as vice commander of U.S. Cyber Command. Stewart was the first black officer to hold the DIA job.

When I spoke to him, in retirement, Stewart had decided to speak publicly about the overt and subtle discrimination he’d experienced during his career. He did this initially with an article in Task and Purpose, a hard-hitting web site devoted to military affairs. He wrote his thoughts in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd at the hands of — or more specifically under the knee of — a Minneapolis police officer.

Stewart, a well-trained military officer and seasoned intelligence executive, didn’t sputter with rage or condemn all white people or the nation. But he spoke with intensity of how the images of the minutes during which Floyd expired “burned” into his, Stewart’s, brain. Indeed, the George Floyd affair produced visceral imagery thanks to the ubiquitous video phone. He recalled the contrast between the “fear and dread” of one face, the “anger and rage” of the other.

What Stewart wanted people to know is how, even in domains where racial diversity is unremarkable, people like Stewart, a Jamaican immigrant to the U.S., don’t feel they can ever totally blend in.

“As I kind of walk through my life, I don’t think many Americans have the appreciation for when a person of color walks out of his home or her home. We can pretend that we’re all colorblind, but it is impossible to not see that it’s not just a tan that is a darker person.” He added, “The implications of that,  the impact of that is you’re automatically, I think, treated a little bit differently. This doesn’t imply that all white people are racist or they’re bigoted — but you can’t hide the color of your skin.”

Stewart said race can cause what he called a degree of “headwind” for a person competing in the roadrace of life. “Sometimes there are people who, they won’t wear a white robe and a hood, but they have certain beliefs. And it is almost impossible to measure that.”

Even with the headwind, all Stewart said he wanted was recognition for the next promotion on his merits. He said that, when he was an officer himself, he advised young Black Marines coming up through the ranks, “I don’t know that I was ever the first choice, but I always wanted to make sure, at the end of the my assignment, folks would look back and go, ‘yeah, he wasn’t the first choice, but he was the best choice.'” Stewart stressed the importance of mentoring in personal ways, and making sure those mentored knew “you have to put in the work, you have to be credible, you have to follow the rules and guidance that come from your seniors — you’ve got to be prepared.”

One other thing stuck with me from Stewart’s interview. Namely, how powerful mentorship can be when coming from those who have not faced the headwinds. In his case, it was White superior officers who recognized Stewart’s potential and helped him act on it.

“What these three gentlemen in particular did was spend quality time with me. Spending time understanding who I am, building a relationship with me, and helping me to think through the next best thing and the next best approach to being successful,” Stewart said. He cited Lieutenant General Robert “Rusty” Blackman, also now retired.

Rustman “was the first one who ever indicated, and I was a colonel at the time, who ever even suggested that I could be a general officer. It wasn’t something I thought about, I guess maybe I thought about it, but I didn’t dwell on it.”

Stewart also recalled General Joe Dunford, by then the Marine Corps commandant, writing in an evaluation that Stewart had the potential to become a three-star DIA director. Steward said he also had backing from a third White officer, General Jim Amos, Dunford’s predecessor as commandant.

One of the earliest people I met after arriving in Washington as editor of a bi-weekly newspaper covering federal IT, was Defense Information Systems Agency Director Alonzo Short, a lieutenant general in the Army who is Black. (Two Al Short memories: One, he always sent emails typed in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS. Two, he had a small, square sign over the door to his office in the Pentagon that read, “Thank God It’s Monday!”) After encountering several other Black federal executives, both military and civilian, I realized how few such people I had encountered in my 15 years of covering private industrial topics, where I spoke with executives in companies in industries ranging from steel to semiconductors.

No one would argue the federal government is perfect in these matters of racial relations, justice, and fairness. But Lieutenant General Vince Stewart shows what is possible even in the presence of bias.

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