February is Black History Month, when we focus on the many contributions African Americans have made to our nation.  African-American men have participated in every war and conflict the United States fought here and abroad since the earliest inception of our nation.  In 1643, Abraham Pearse was listed on the rolls of men capable of bearing arms in the Plymouth Colony.  Crispus Attucks, a former slave, was the first casualty of the Revolutionary War, killed during the Boston Massacre.  Lemuel Haynes, an indentured servant and the first African-American Minuteman, enlisted in the Revolutionary War after earning his freedom.  African Americans have worn the cloth of the nation in all wars and conflicts throughout our history, bravely fighting enemies abroad and racism at home.

Fifty years ago, no one could have envisioned an African-American President of the United States.  Today, thanks to the Civil Rights Movement and the work of civil rights activists whose struggle brought about a seismic change in race relations throughout the country, African-American children can pursue opportunities denied to their parents and grandparents.

Despite these seismic changes, health disparities continue to plague people of color.  Culturally, African Americans struggle with higher rates of hypertension, high cholesterol and diabetes, the trifecta of risk factors for heart disease and stroke.  African Americans are also disproportionately affected by obesity.  Additionally, African-American women are more than twice as likely to die of cervical cancer than are white women, and they are more likely to die of breast cancer than women of any other racial group, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Office of Minority Health & Health Disparities.  While African Americans comprise nearly 26 percent of the population, they account for 66 percent of adult HIV-AIDS cases.  These issues are much bigger than genetics, and they cost the nation almost $1.24 trillion every four years.

The VA Maryland Health Care System is committed to delivering safe, quality and compassionate health care to all Veterans, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, education, or disability.  We strive to address the internal barriers to health and wellness in ways that encourage Veterans to participate in their treatment plan by focusing on prevention and patient education to confront denial, increase health literacy, and help change cultural norms that enable patients to change eating habits, increase activity levels and quit smoking.

Dr. Martin Luther King’s boldly shared dream envisioned everyone being treated with dignity and respect.  By embracing and celebrating his dream, we can lead the world, as King said, “rising above the narrow confines of individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”

All Marylanders can salute and honor the men and women who served in the armed forces by making sure that they are receiving the services they need and deserve.  If you know a Veteran who needs assistance, please encourage them to enroll for VA health care by visiting any VA Maryland Health Care System facility throughout the state, by contacting our Enrollment Center at 1-800-463-6295, ext. 7324, or by visiting our website at www.maryland.va.gov and clicking on “Become a Patient.”  Our Veterans served, and it is now our turn to serve them.  As a U.S. Navy Veteran, I can attest this is a duty we take very seriously.

Dr. Adam M. Robinson Jr., acting director, VA Maryland Health Care System