Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Airman Follows Famous Uncle

When Airman Christopher Platte decided to join the Air Force last year, he didn't know he would be following in famous footsteps. Graduation from Basic Military Training here Dec. 11 capped a two-day whirlwind for Platte that included rare time spent with his great uncle, retired Air Force Capt. Claude Platte, an original Tuskegee Airman. BMT graduation was the first time since he was an infant that Platte had been with his famous uncle, who helped break down racial and educational barriers by becoming one of the first African American officers trained and commissioned in the newly reopened Air Force pilot training program at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, in the 1940s. The younger Platte found out about his uncle after telling his family he wanted to join the Air Force. He first spoke with his great uncle in November 2008, he said. "I talked to my mother about [joining the Air Force] and she said, 'Oh, by the way, you have a great uncle who is a Tuskegee Airman,'" Platte recalled. "I had no idea," he added. "I think that it's going to be a great motivation for me to take it a step higher now that I know where I come from. Even if I decide not to be a pilot, it's motivation to be the best I can be in the Air Force." The elder Platte served 18 years in the Air Force and trained more than 400 African American airmen to fly solo and pilot specialized military aircraft. Captain Platte's brother -- Christopher Platte's grandfather -- was also a Tuskegee Airman. Captain Platte has received many honors including an honorary doctorate in public service from Tuskegee University in 2006, and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2007.
Retired U.S. Air Force Capt. Claude Platte signs a wall at the 323rd Training Squadron dedicated to the Tuskegee Airmen as his great nephew, Airman Christopher Platte, looks on.
Retired from Bell Helicopter Textron Co. and living in North Texas, Platte and other Tuskegee Airmen travel the country telling their stories. A modest man who stays involved in community service, the elder Platte said he wasn't out to break down barriers; he only wanted to fly. "It was something I wanted to do," he said. "It was just like getting a toy. I didn't think about the segregation part of it. I wasn't interfered with, so I really enjoyed it." Captain Platte's return to Lackland AFB for his great nephew's graduation was the first time he had been back since his own BMT nearly 50 years ago. And, as Airman Platte begins his military career, he's entering as a survival, evasion, resistance and escape specialist. He, too, started down a different trail. After all, how many airmen begin their career with an Eagle Scout Court of Honor the day before BMT graduation? "It was an interesting experience. It was not a traditional court of honor," he said about the Dec. 10 ceremony. Col. William Mott V, the 37th Training Wing commander, presided over the event and presented Platte with his Eagle Scout award. The two days of activities were enough to make a mother proud. "I don't think there are words to describe how proud I am," said Platte's mother, Marilyn Wright. "He really didn't have any idea the legacy he was stepping into. Since he was six, he's been saying, 'I want to fly planes; I want to be in the air!'" "Honestly, I tried to discourage him, but it's in his heart to be an airman," she said. "Now he's fulfilling a dream."

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