FORT BRAGG, NORTH CAROLINA —
For much of U.S. history, the American military's fighting force was overwhelmingly white and male. But today, the force is as diverse as the country it serves to protect.
Fort Bragg, North Carolina, is home to the "All-American" 82nd Airborne, which calls itself the most diverse division in the United States.
Soldiers say despite perceived racial discord in the country — whether it be during the Charlottesville riots last August or the recent controversial comments from President Donald Trump on immigrants from Haiti and Africa — the fighting unit's values remain unchanged.
"We were the first racially integrated unit in the U.S. Department of Defense," said Lt. Col. Joe Buccino, communications director for the 82nd Airborne, "the first division to have female infantry commanders, and this was the first division that was organized with people from all over the country."
The base has paratroopers from all 50 states, and more than 120 different nationalities.
Private First Class Irvin Andrean grew up in Indonesia before moving to the eastern U.S. state of Pennsylvania as a teen. He joined the Army as a mechanic and says he has never felt out of place.
"When I first got here, they all welcomed me," Andrean said. "Like, they never treated me differently."
Sgt. Selene Uribe grew up in the United States, but English was not her first language. She says joining the U.S. Army required some adjustment.
"Coming from a very small town, which is Richgrove, California, 99.9 percent Hispanic, it was a culture shock," she said.
Now Uribe and her colleagues from culturally homogenous areas say they embrace the differences within their division, and have grown from working with those from various backgrounds.
"I've met some very amazing people and it's opened my eyes a lot," said Specialist Vince Vest. "And I've gained a lot of wisdom through those people, and I've made life-long friends."
Out in the civilian world, the United States is embroiled in a political debate over immigration and racism, recharged by controversial remarks made by President Trump.
While these soldiers at Fort Bragg say they haven't experienced racial discrimination in the military, Master Sgt. Jose Colon worries about the day he retires and steps off the base and into non-military life.
"I don't see any comeradery in the civilian world coming," he said. "I don't know what would trigger that, but we don't seem to be getting any closer."
Colon says the 82nd, and the entire U.S. Army for that matter, has an established a code of conduct that does not tolerate racism.
"You feel safe in some aspects by being in the military because you have these rules that help protect you and make it equal," he said. "That's why I love it. That's kind of the reason why I joined."
While the political debate surrounding diversity and racism dominates headlines, the Army continues to welcome recruits from throughout the world.
Staff Sgt. Alfred Kollie, who fled Liberia and lived most of his life in a Ghana refugee camp, now leads a 20-soldier fueling team for the 82nd.
"As a child in Africa, seeing all the chaos and death and destruction, I felt myself that I owe the world to be part of something good and not something evil," Kollie said.
His goal, like the rest of the 82nd Airborne, is to serve and protect regardless of race, gender or ethnicity.