There are 100 words that could describe retired Maj. Nancy Leftenant-Colon, one for each year she has lived on this Earth. Most assuredly, at least some of those descriptors would be "brave, steadfast, dedicated" and "trailblazer."
Leftenant-Colon, the first Black woman to be accepted into the U.S. Army Air Corps, this week celebrated her 100th birthday at the Dominican Village in Amityville, where she lives in an apartment in the assisted living facility’s independent living section.
There was an in-person and Zoom video celebration with more than 50 people, including students from Tuskegee University in Alabama, Leftenant-Colon’s sister, Amy; nieces, nephews and cousins, plus a cake, balloons and gifts. The occasion commemorated a lifetime of accomplishments for a woman who still enjoys reading and writing and whose passion for nursing could not be thwarted by the bigotry and racial injustices she faced.
"I wanted to be a nurse and there was nothing that was going to stop me," she said. "I had to be the best because I knew whatever I did, other Blacks after me would be judged by what I did and how I did it."
Her grandparents were slaves
Leftenant-Colon was born on Sept. 29, 1920, and grew up in Amityville as one of 13 children of James Sr. and Eunice Leftenant, whose parents were slaves.
"We were poor, but we had a good life," she said. "My father would say, ‘Do the best you can. If it’s sweeping the floor, do the best you can.’ And I always tried to do the best at whatever I attacked."
From an early age Leftenant-Colon said she dreamed of a nursing career.
"I was supposed to be a nurse," she said. "It was the only thing I ever wanted to do."
Military service was alluring to the Leftenant children, and six of the siblings would go on to serve, including Leftenant-Colon’s brother Sam, a Tuskegee Airman who is believed to have died after a mid-air collision near Austria during World War II.
"I liked the way they looked, the way they dressed and their manner of speaking to people," Leftenant-Colon said of those in uniform. "I said ‘I want to be just like them.’ "
She joined the Army Reserves in 1945, unable to get into the regular Army Nurse Corps because she was Black. In 1948, after President Harry Truman ordered the military to be desegregated, Leftenant-Colon became the first Black woman to be accepted, commissioned and integrated into the Army Air Corps, the aerial branch of the Army before the Air Force was created in 1947.
Early in her Army career, Leftenant-Colon was a traveling nurse, moving between bases and often encountering racism.
"You spend your last nickel to have the best-looking uniform in the world and somebody comes to you as you arrive at a base and they say, ‘I hope you’re not going to be stationed here,’ " Leftenant-Colon said. "Here you were working, trying to save a soul or two, and then somebody treats you like this."
Driving by herself across the South and fearing for her safety, Leftenant-Colon had to take measures to protect and sustain herself. Too afraid to ask for access to a bathroom, she said she would refrain from drinking for an entire day. She would drive hundreds of miles out of the way to find a place where she could lay her head at night. And every two years she would buy a new car just to ensure she had a vehicle in top condition.
"I was afraid that if the car broke down that I couldn’t get it fixed," Leftenant-Colon recalled. "Nobody would do it and I would be out there all by myself."
The fear and discrimination shook Leftenant-Colon, but they did not break her.
"You cry on the inside but you couldn’t let anybody see you in that state," she said. "I don’t know anything that would turn me away from nursing. That was my baby."
‘Good days’ with a Tuskegee crew
In the 1950s, Leftenant-Colon worked as a flight nurse with the Air Force, traveling with a Tuskegee crew to accompany wounded soldiers across Korea and Japan and between the two countries. Often it was just her, the pilot, a corpsman and more than 20 patients.
"I was usually the only female on those airplanes," Leftenant-Colon said. "Those were good days. You had time to talk to the patients. It’s a nice feeling because they were so far away from home and had no one to discuss anything with."
Leftenant-Colon would later be put in charge of "VIP" hospital wards in Germany that held officers and enlisted male patients. The pint-size nurse would order burly corpsmen to change the linens and pajamas of the wounded.
"I wouldn’t let any patient be seen by a doctor if he hadn’t had a complete shower," she said. "The fellows would mumble and grumble about me but they would do as I asked and we got along just fine."
Leftenant-Colon married fellow Air Force officer Bayard K. Colon, who died in 1972. The couple had no children, and Leftenant-Colon retired from the military after 20 years of service. She would go on to become a nurse at Amityville High School for 13 years and earn two doctorate degrees.
Making history again
In 1989, she became the first woman elected president of the nonprofit Tuskegee Airmen Inc., which honors and promotes the history of the airmen and introduces young people to aviation and offers them educational assistance. She served for two years.
Leftenant-Colon embraced the gravity of her role as a military pioneer and became a mentor to Black servicewomen.
Sheila Chamberlain, the first Black woman to be an Army combat intelligence pilot, called Leftenant-Colon a "pillar" of her life who has taught her and many others how to endure.
"Nancy helped open the doors for us and I’m so happy that she’s here to watch the flowers bloom from the seeds she planted and watered," said Chamberlain, of Hollywood, Florida.
On her 100th birthday, the Women In Military Service For America Memorial Foundation declared Leftenant-Colon a "Living Legend." The still-fiery former Army nurse took her legendary status in stride.
"I still have so much left to do!" she declared.