Bradenton school to honor black military veterans

vmannix@bradenton.comJanuary 30, 2014 

BRADENTON

One man is a decorated Vietnam veteran.

"That's history," said Henry Blyden, 68.

The other man is the last of the Buffalo Soldiers, the original nickname bestowed by the Plains Indians on the Negro U.S. Cavalry they fought in 1866.

"Ancient history," said Steve Lewis, 92.

Perhaps, but important history, nonetheless.

Particularly to the youngsters at Visible Men Academy, which will host a Black History Celebration of Veterans, 9 a.m.-noon Saturday at 921 63rd Ave. E., Bradenton.

The event is being held in partnership with the Family Heritage Foundation and the Legacy of Valor campaign.

Besides Blyden and Lewis, the panel of African-American veterans will include Lt. Col. (ret.) George Hardy, who flew with the famed Tuskegee Airmen, and Henry Bundles, who served in the U.S. Navy and U.S. Army during World War II.

As program narrator, Blyden wants to impress on young minds what these men did for future generations.

"You talk about the Buffalo Soldiers, the Tuskegee Airmen and Vietnam, they can't relate to that. But you hope to let the young people know these things did happen," said the NAACP's 2013 Unsung Hero Award recipient for his work in adolescent recovery at Manatee Glens. "Some can't relate to Iraq and Afghanistan and that's still happening.

"You just want to let them know not only is it necessary for us to have a military to defend our country, but their fathers and grandfathers, folks like us, also served their country to preserve freedom and our way of life.

"You also want to let them know there are other options for them other than the NFL and hip-hop. There's also a possibility for education, a career.

"It could be a way of life. It was for me."

A native of St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, Blyden spent 14 months in Vietnam, starting with an artillery unit during the 1968 Tet Offensive. He also had postings in Germany and Panama and finished as a recruiter.

"I grew up in the military," he said.

Steve Lewis did not.

Yet it gave the longtime Manatee County educator and community leader an identity with a noble legacy, one he's greeted with every Sunday at Turner Chapel AME Church in Palmetto.

"Most of the young guys don't call me by name," Lewis said. "They call me 'Buffalo Soldier.' And I answer."

The 1941 graduate of Palmetto's Memorial High School was sent to Fort Clark in Galveston, Texas, in 1943 to train with the U.S. Ninth Cavalry, one of the original African-American regiments formed in 1866.

The Buffalo Soldiers got their nickname because of their curly hair, dark faces and the animal's fighting spirit.

Lewis had never heard of them. Nor had he ever been on a horse.

"I thought, 'Oh, my gosh. Horses?' I'd never seen any growing up in Palmetto," said the Florida A&M University alum. "The only cavalry I knew I'd seen in cowboy movies."

Still, he learned how to ride and trained with horses for 13 weeks during World War II.

On furlough, Lewis came home and had a picture taken in his riding boots and uniform.

"It was fancy," he said. "I like the way it looked on me."

Going to war, much like the Buffalo Soldiers of yore, was not to be.

The Army dissolved its cavalry in favor of mechanized combat units.

The Buffalo Soldiers ceased in 1944.

"I was in the last group," Lewis said.

He was sent to the Army's transportation corps, then shipped off to North Africa and Italy, serving in the rear echelon moving ammunition, food and supplies to the front.

"Never heard a shot, never saw a battle," Lewis said. "But I still feel an attachment to the Ninth Cavalry. The transportation corps has no history. The Buffalo Soldiers do and it's part of me."

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