Marian Dee Elder’s brother bet against her.

She was told she would never make it through basic training.

But today, the 69-year-old has a combined 22 years in three different military branches under her belt. And on Wednesday, she will be part of a group of 26 Black veterans who will fly to Washington, D.C., as part of an honor flight to commemorate Black servicemembers on Juneteenth. The group will travel from Atlanta to visit the World War II Memorial, Korean War Veterans Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery and other landmarks in a “day of honor” to recognize their service.

The attendees of this week’s trip include a 101-year-old veteran, three recipients of the Purple Heart, including one who also received a Bronze Star, and four women.

“I really feel it’s an honor and a privilege that they actually selected me,” Elder said.

Elder first heard about the trip from a network of women’s organizations she is involved with in Atlanta. When a link popped up from one group on Facebook, she filled out an application.

Marian Elder poses with her United Service Organization at the Atlanta Airport.

It’s the first Juneteenth trip organized by the Honor Flight Network, a program launched in 2005 to fly veterans to Washington, D.C., on all-expenses-paid trips to celebrate their service.

John McCaskill, a member of the National Board of Directors of the Honor Flight Network, said he conceived of the idea for this week’s trip several years ago as he asked why more African American servicemembers hadn’t participated in the program. Part of their reluctance, McCaskill said, could be rooted in the deficit of appreciation shown to them historically.

“We’re hoping that this will help inspire others who have earned this honor to become a part of it as well,” he said.

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Marian Elder served a combined 22 years in three different branches of the military.

Decades of service

After an initial stint in the Army, Elder joined the Navy in 1980 and the Air Force as a flight nurse in 1984. Her service allowed her to travel the world – she visited England, Germany, France, Italy, Turkey, Alaska, Hawaii and multiple other U.S. states.

She first enlisted in the Army in 1973 fresh out of high school, following in the footsteps of her older brother, who had joined a couple years earlier.

“He actually made a bet that, as a female, I would not even make it through basic training, that it was too rough for women,” Elder said. “He never paid me.”

Marian Elder at a military swearing in ceremony in 1984.

Elder said she faced discrimination over the course of her time serving – for both her race and her gender.

As a medic stationed in Germany soon after she joined up, Elder was forced to sleep in the back of the ambulance at night during field maneuvers while her male colleagues slept in a tent.

The opportunities available to her were also limited more than her white or male counterparts, Elder said. “When I first went in, there were only certain fields that women could go in,” she said. Elder chose medical.

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Marian Elder during her time serving in the Navy.

Black members fought wars abroad, racism at home

Although Black Americans had served in the military “since that first shot fired from Lexington, Massachusetts in 1775,” they couldn’t fight on a legal basis until the Civil War, McCaskill said.

Racism in the military continued through the decades. During World War II, McCaskill said, Black servicemembers of the military fought “fascism abroad and racism at home.”

Elder said the landscape has improved since she first joined, but women and Black servicemembers still haven’t been recognized as much as others. “Sometimes, even when I’m wearing a military hat or something, people will ask me, did I serve, or did my husband serve?” she said.

It took Elder nearly a full decade to receive full compensation for her service-connected disabilities. “I had to apply several times and appeal several decisions,” she said.

Marian Elder joins a celebration for Georgia veterans on Women's Day this year.

Elder said she counts this week’s trip as a welcome token of appreciation for her service. She lived in Washington as a member of the Air Force, and last visited the city for a Memorial Day parade last month.

This time around, she’s most excited to visit the Women’s Memorial. Arlington National Cemetery is also at the top of her travel list.

“Even though I was stationed in that area, I’ve never seen the changing of the guard,” she said.

Cybele Mayes-Osterman is a breaking news reporter for USA Today. Reach her on email at Follow her on X @CybeleMO.