Lenon Lathan is much more than a former resident of Sturgis.
Lathan is an American hero whose military service will not only be recognized for the sacrifices he made as a young man, but also the for importance his service means to the African American community.
Lathan, who was born in Sturgis in 1926, will receive the Congressional Gold Medal Wednesday, along with other veterans a part of the first African American U.S. Marine Corps, the Montford Point Marines.
Denise King, Lathan’s daughter, said she did not realize the importance of her father’s service until several years ago.
“I’ve always known my dad was a Marine,” King said. “When my husband’s cousin realized he was an original Montford Point Marine, I began to dig deeper into the significance of that.”
In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a presidential directive allowing African Americans the opportunity to be recruited into the Marine Corps. However, instead of being sent to the traditional boot camps in Parris Island, S.C. or San Diego, Calif., African American recruits were segregated and sent to basic training at Montford Point in Camp Lejeune, N.C.
From 1942 to 1949, approximately 20,000 African American Marines were trained at Montford Point.
Now living in Blue Island, Ill. at the age of 85, Lathan said although he is very proud of his time in the armed forces, he initially did not know what the Marine Corps was exactly.
“I volunteered to join the armed forces, but after meeting with a recruiter, they picked me and said I was suited to be a Marine,” Lathan said. “They chose me. I didn’t choose them.”
Lathan served two terms as a United States Marine from 1944-1948. At the time of his training, he said, he did not understand the significance of the training situation he was in.
“I had no idea what being a Montford Point Marine meant,” he said. “I’ve lived a life of segregation, so being in a segregated corp at the time didn’t seem all that different from my life.”
Lathan said he had always wanted a better life for himself and was not afraid to move beyond his comfort zone.
“I saw this as a chance to move beyond my hometown of Sturgis,” he said. “I took a chance with the Marines.”
King said her only regret is not knowing about her father’s historic service sooner, but she is proud of his accomplishments.
“There just aren’t enough words for me to describe the amount of pride and joy our family feels for him receiving this honor,” she said. “We are so grateful to the men and women who made our lives so much richer because of the sacrifices they made while serving this great country.”
While Lathan was not initially excited about the honor he will receive until his children’s enthusiasm won him over, he said he is excited about his trip the nation’s capitol because of his continued interest in the changes America has seen over the years.
“Things are a lot better than they were when I was young, but we are still always fighting for something,” he said. “I’m just glad I’m in America.”
Live coverage of the event will appear on C-SPAN Wednesday, and Lathan said he is becoming increasingly excited as the day approaches.
“I really hope that I will be able to recognize or remember one of my old buddies who I was enlisted with.”