WASHINGTON, D.C. (KXAN) - My father was always my hero. He was the 10-foot-tall knight in shining armor that made me a princess, chased away the "scary things" lurking in my closet at bed time, and drew cheerful cartoon characters on my lunch bags wishing me a good day at school.
They were small things that made a big difference in my world. I had no idea then my Dad was also a hero to thousands of others who are able to pursue their dreams because he answered a call to serve his country in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.
Leon Thomas Dean enlisted in the Marine Corps May 23, 1949, two weeks after he turned 20. It was the first step in pursuing a dream that started outside the gates of the storied Marine Barracks at Eighth and I streets in Washington, D.C., a place he'd visit whenever he could.
"I guess I must have been about 13 or 14 years old and I would see the Marines in their dress blues, and that just set me off it really struck me," Dad said as he recalled memories from 60 years ago. "I said to myself, I want to wear a uniform like that someday."
As my father boarded a bus for North Carolina he would soon learn that earning the right to wear that uniform would be a greater challenge than he ever imagined.
"When I got to Montford Point, I don't remember what the temperature was, but it had to be 100. The drill instructors in our company yelled at us to line up and they really tore us up," said Dad, who called the training in the smothering heat relentless.
"We would drill until the backs of our uniforms were soaked, dripping with sweat. We looked like wet ducks," he added with a laugh.
Serving but segregated
Intense training wasn't the only hardship my father and an estimated 20,000 black Marines endured at Montford Point Camp. From 1942 until 1949, Monford Point was a segregated section of Camp Lejeune. It was the only place blacks were allowed to train.
It was also a place where separate was far from equal.
Recruits, or "Boots" lived in ramshackle Depression-era huts with little heat in the winter and no relief from sweltering temperatures in the summer.
Even though President Harry Truman ordered the integration of the Armed Forces a year earlier, the black recruits were not allowed to visit other parts of Camp Lejeune without a white escort. Their ability was questioned and their jobs were at first limited to support roles such as stewards.
The Marine Corps was the last to integrate. In fact, its leadership was staunchly against permanently integrating the force and planned to discharge black Marines when World War II ended.
Blood, sweat, and sacrifice
That plan changed when they earned their right to fight equally with blood, sweat, and sacrifice on the battlefields of the Pacific from Saipan to Iwo Jima. The bravery and heroism was also seen in the Korean War at Pusan, Inchon, and Chosin.
My father proudly served as a member of VMF-214, also known as Black Sheep Squadron, conducting carrier operations during the landings at Punsan, Wonsan, and the evacuation of Hungnam.
"It was tough going over there for a while," said Dad, who earned the rank of sergeant, as he quietly reflected on the missions he participated in. "We're blessed that he made it through it."
And proudly, he added that VMF-214 was presented with the Presidential Unit Citation for extraordinary heroism in action.
It is the only time I've ever heard my Dad brag about his service. It isn't his way, or the Marine Corps way for that matter.
Fighting for your country, protecting your brother or sister to the left and to the right is what motivates Marines. It isn't about recognition for the hardships endured, medals or awards.
A daughter's pride
Still, I am extremely proud that 70 years after the first black Marines stepped off the bus at Montford Point Camp, their fierce desire and dedication to fight for a nation that limited their rights and freedoms based on the color of their skin is being recognized.
My brother and I had the honor of accompanying my Dad to Washington for the presentation of the nation's highest civilian honor, the Congressional Gold Medal, to the Montford Point Marines on June 27.
Nearly 400 Marines and their families traveled from all over the United States traveled to D.C. for ceremonies at the Capitol and at the Marine Barracks.
For many of the men – now in their 80s and 90s - walking or even standing was a challenge. But it was a moment they weren't going to miss. The look of pride of their faces as they met the generations of Marines who've found success in their footsteps moved many to tears.
The next day at Eighth and I, the place that inspired my father to dream of wearing a Marine Corps uniform, he experienced the thrill of a lifetime.
As the youngest of the Montford Point Marines in attendance, he stood shoulder to shoulder with Commandant Gen. James Amos, and the oldest Marine present for the parade "Pass in Review" with a commemorative bronze medal crafted in the image of the Congress
left him at a loss for words when the commandant asked him how he was feeling, well almost.
"I couldn't describe what I was feeling so I told him I felt like a million dollars in a 5- and 10-cent store," Dad said laughing.
Minutes later he was offering words of encouragement to a staff sergeant who told him he didn't think he could've overcome the challenges at Montford Point.
"It's just the way things were and we did what he had to. We didn't have a choice if we wanted things to change. You would've done the same, you'd survive because you're a Marine," my Dad said, patting him on the back.
My father and his fellow Montford Point Marines serve as an example to us all. Never let anyone, or anything stand in the way of your dreams. Patriotism knows no color. Once a Marine, Always a Marine.
Semper Fi, Daddy.
Editor's note: Alicia Dean is the assistant news director for KXAN.
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