Scaling ranks challenging for two blacks

By Darrell Todd Maurina: CNJ Staff Writer

When 2nd Lt. Ira Pottard left the Army’s veterinary corps after fighting in World War II, he couldn’t arrange the financing to begin a veterinary practice in Clovis and traded his officer’s uniform to become a chauffeur. More than 35 years later when Delores Forrest entered the United States Air Force as a nurse, she began a career that has taken her to the rank of colonel and commander of the medical group at Cannon Air Force Base.
Both Pottard and Forrest are blacks who take pride in wearing the uniform of the United States military, but had quite different experiences as military officers.

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Ira Pottard moved to Clovis with his family in 1935 at the age of 10 and lived there until being drafted in 1942 to fight in World War II.
The military in those days was still segregated. Black soldiers were limited in what jobs they could fill and what promotion ranks they could attain, but the existence of special all-black units provided opportunities for leadership, yet at the same time they isolated black soldiers from the rest of the Army. Having groups like the all-black 9th Cavalry required the Army to train black officers to lead the troops, and Pottard became one of the few black soldiers in those days to wear the gold bars of a second lieutenant. His cavalry unit dated back to the so-called “Buffalo Soldiers,” who guarded wagon trails of the American West against marauders. By the beginning of World War II, most cavalry units were running tanks, but the 9th Cavalry still used real horses and mules to carry men and supplies along rugged trails of Burma and other battlegrounds of southeast Asia.
“When you are in basic training they test you for what you’d be qualified for,” Pottard said. “I had been around horses and mules my whole life so that was what they selected me for, to become a veterinarian for the Army.”
By 1943, Pottard had earned his commission as a lieutenant and was among those given the duty of caring for nearly 2,000 head of animals on two ships bound for Calcutta and then for Burma, where British and American soldiers needed the animals to help build the Burma Road. Pottard did his best to keep the animals alive, but due to the heat below decks some died, and Pottard had to butcher the horses and mules before throwing them overboard.
“We had to butcher them because if you just threw them overboard whole they would float and become a target for submarines to find us,” Pottard said.
The Burma Road was critical to the survival of the embattled army of China, which had been cut off from coastal supply lines by the Japanese and whose only means of resupply was from India, either by air flights over the Himalayas or through the mountains and ridges of Burma. The Japanese plan to conquer Asia depended on neutralizing Nationalist China, and that meant the Allies needed to keep China from collapsing under the Japanese onslaught. An American general worked with 28,000 American soldiers, most of them black, and 35,000 local laborers to build a 478-mile military supply route connecting with an existing Chinese road to create an 1,100-mile corridor between India and China.
Until that road was built, the only way to get supplies to the Chinese was with caravans of mules, and keeping the animals alive was Pottard’s job.
“I didn’t enjoy any of it; when we were in combat, we were fighting the regular Japanese troops,” Pottard said. “The Japanese were spreading out through all of Asia at that time and it was our job to stop them.”
Pottard often thought of his role in a military unit with a history dating back to the freeing of the slaves after the Civil War. After the end of the war, the victorious Union army organized two black cavalry units, the 9th Cavalry and the 10th Cavalry, and assigned them to the western territories. Soon named “Buffalo Soldiers,” the black cavalry units formed from groups of former slaves earned a reputation for being fierce fighters.
“It was really an honor to be with the Buffalo Soldiers because they were one of the oldest fighting units. They had been sent after the Civil War on a police detail to protect the wagon trains,” Pottard said. “When I was in it was segregated all right, but there weren’t any problems between the races. When you’re in war, you watch your buddies and your buddy watches your back, too.”
Pottard received the respect due to an officer while he wore the uniform, but he said things changed after he returned to civilian life.
“We came back to Clovis and tried to start a veterinary facility, but we didn’t have the capital to start a place and nobody would take a risk on us,” Pottard said.
One local family did know Pottard, however — that of Gov. Thomas Mabry.
“I knew Mrs. Mabry, she had been a schoolteacher in Portales,” Pottard said. “I drove the governor’s limousine for two terms in Santa Fe.”
Pottard later became a bartender in railroad lounge cars and ended his career in the maintenance department of the Clovis school system.
Pottard continues to have a love for the military, and has been a member of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3015 for nearly 25 years.
“I’m the only Buffalo Soldier left, so I go around to different schools and things, and even out of town,” Pottard said. “I’m it. When I go, there’ll be no more left.”

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Unlike Pottard, Col. Delores Forrest wasn’t drafted — by her own admission, she had to repeatedly bug and bother an Air Force recruiter to let her join.
Forrest graduated from college with a bachelor of science in nursing in 1979 and was working in a Veterans Administration hospital. As a newly-minted BSN, hospital officials wanted to put her in charge of experienced Army nurses who had years of practical experience but had become RNs without getting a bachelor’s degree.
“From day one I always knew I wanted to be a nurse, and those Army nurses knew their stuff,” Forrest said. “I said I cannot be in charge of nurses who have so much experience. To learn what they had learned, I hounded the recruiter to say, ‘How can I come into the Air Force?’”
Forrest eventually was able to join the military herself, and after a 23-year career she said she’s never regretted it.
“I have the utmost respect for these men who go off to war to fight,” Forrest said. “You can’t ask for anything more than that. They took care of each other.”
Forrest said a major advantage of military service — not just for minorities but for anyone — is the emphasis on objective standards for performance.
“The military is a good opportunity for anyone,” Forrest said. “It matters not if you are a woman or a minority. You are solely promoted based on your potential.”
“We have tremendous opportunities now,” Forrest said. “Being a female and a black female hasn’t been a problem. I am the CEO of the medical group here at Cannon. Where in civilian life would you find a nurse in charge of providers, running an entire medical unit?”
While she credits the military culture for being a key part of her success in life, she said she knows things haven’t always been easy for minority members of the military.
“I feel for Lt. Pottard, he had a very tough time, but now there are so many opportunities for everyone,” Forrest said.
Helping minorities in the military understand their heritage is important for Forrest, who said she’s taken considerable time to study the former all-black units of the military such as the Buffalo Soldiers and the Tuskegee Airmen.
“We had black history back in high school but they barely touched the surface,” Forrest said. “Once I came into the military, there have been organizations that helped educate me.”