At a recent Vietnam Veterans Champions of Change event– a part of the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the start of the Vietnam War this year — the White House honored eleven veterans of various wars as Champions. These honorees were chosen for their dedication to helping veterans across the country. One of the Champions chosen was 91-year-old World War II veteran Sgt. Stephen Sherman, one of the few surviving African American WWII vets. Through his Dorie Miller Memorial Foundation, Sgt. Sherman successfully works to get homeless veterans in the Los Angeles area off of the streets and into homes with proper health care and access to the resources they need to obtain employment. His daily mantra is “Leave No Soldier Behind.”
Sgt. Sherman named his Foundation after his friend, the first American hero at Pearl Harbor, Doris “Dorie” Miller, an African American cook in the segregated United States Navy who — without any training — took hold of an unattended Browning .50 caliber anti-aircraft machine gun on his ship, the West Virginia and began firing at the Japanese planes who were bombing the Harbor on that infamous day in December 1941.
The following year, Miller was awarded the Navy’s third highest honor (at the time), the Navy Cross, though many Navy officers – including Sgt. Sherman – believe Miller should have been awarded the Medal of Honor and was snubbed because he was Black.
After the Champions of Change event, the spritely Sgt. Sherman sat down with EBONY to explain why.
SGT. STEPHEN SHERMAN: Dorie told me himself that he shot down at least four or five planes. I named my foundation after him because I want to keep his name alive and I want to see President Obama give him the Medal of Honor he deserves. I’ve already written [the President] a letter [to waive the time limitations specified by law and award him the Medal of Honor]. I want to personally put that letter in the President’s hand.
EBONY: During the [Champions of Change] event you mentioned that you personally knew Dorie and that’s why this cause is so important to you. What was Dorie like?
SS: He was great. He reminded me of Jim Brown, if you remember the great football player. He was a quiet hero.
EBONY: You also served in a segregated unit in World War II in Okinawa. What was that like for you?
SS: Okinawa was nothing but pure hell for all soldiers over there. The Japanese didn’t know the war was over. They had ammunition and food and had been hiding in the caves and could’ve survived there for years, so we had to eliminate all of those caves. They wouldn’t give up like the Germans did. You had to kill every last single one of them. So we had to bulldoze the caves and close them off. We knew there were people in there and they’d either be crushed or suffocate and that bothered all of us. And when I came home, [the doctors] said if I feel depressed, I should just take a couple aspirin. They didn’t know about PTSD [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder] back then but every one of the men in my unit had PTSD.
EBONY: So without a proper diagnosis, how were you able to heal from that?
SS: You don’t ever heal from it. It still bothers me. I threw away two fortunes, I made all this money and I just gave it away. I didn’t know what had happened to me or why until after I talked to [a doctor friend of mine] he told me what was wrong. And it just made me want to help others who went through what I went through. It gives me self-satisfaction to help veterans live a better life. I have a goal — at 91 years old you can’t really say “This is what I want to happen in 10 years” — but in two years I want every man and woman veterans off the streets of America. I would like to visit all fifty states and not see a sign that says “Homeless Vet.” I don’t want to see that. And it can be done. We are the greatest, richest country in the world. We can get this done in two years.
EBONY: You are sharp as a tack, focused and so energetic. You only use your wheelchair to travel long distances. What is your secret to being in such good health?
SS: All I can tell you is that I have faith. I always live a good clean life and never give up.
To keep up with Sgt. Sherman’s efforts to honor Dorie Miller, you can visit DorieMillerMemorialFoundation.org.