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Lee airdrop advisor, rigger recounts struggles, triumphs of 35-year career

Updated: Aug 21, 2021

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Chief Warrant Officer 5 Cortez Frazier served as the senior airdrop advisor and airdrop systems technician for the Quartermaster School's Aerial Delivery and Field Services Department. The first African American to hold the position, he is set to retire later this year after 35 years of service.

FORT LEE, Va. (June 9, 2020) --One could argue Cortez Frazier the Soldier was forged in the demanding 75th Ranger Regiment and its “all or nothing” culture.

Or, as a result of the persistent stress and weighty responsibility of being a parachute rigger.

Or, by victoriously fighting through a gauntlet of professional and institutional issues that could have devastated his psyche or damaged his career.

The common denominator through these experiences were the attitudes, beliefs and values – fairly consistent with those in the military – Frazier gained as a youngster while under the care of someone whose primary interests clearly rested with the well-being of others.

Those attributes were obvious at Fort Pickett April 22 when he executed his 850th – and final – parachute jump. Frazier is ending his Army career as a chief warrant officer 5 assigned here as the senior airdrop advisor and airdrop systems technician at the Quartermaster School’s Aerial Delivery and Field Services Department.

Largely avoiding the usual retirement sentiment following the jump, the 52-year-old Frazier instead offered another mentorship morsel to the initial entry Soldiers he has worked the past three years to protect.

“What you need to take from this is that you can be in this position,” he said, speaking on the drop zone to QM School parachute rigger students making culmination jumps. “You can be the first sergeant, you can be the commander, you can be a sergeant major, you can be a W5…. So, don’t limit yourself and make sure you strive to do your best.”

In light of his upbringing amongst 22 cousins and others in Talladega, Ala., Frazier’s positivity and hopefulness –even after 35 years of challenges, large and small – is at once comprehensible and remarkable. His cousin, retired Army Col. Gloria Blake, said the two were raised under economically depressed conditions by their grandmother Minnie Scales, who, despite the hand she was dealt, embodied “Golden Rule” morals and principles.

“Cortez’ values started long before the military put them on a poster and said, ‘Army Values,’” said Blake, a former quartermaster and rigger who was among the first women to integrate the 82nd Airborne Division. “He was raised to say ‘Yes sir’ and ‘Yes ma’am,’ to stay quiet if an elder was speaking, to give to those who do not have and to always ask yourself how you would like to be treated. … He had all of the attributes the Army needed to make it better. His way of taking care of family and others, his respect for his elders and his desire to be better made him the ideal candidate to be a Soldier.”

Blake said Scales also was the very antithesis of negativity, underachievement and hopelessness and taught her grandchildren to practice old-school resilience in a new-school world.

“I knew it would be hard for us because we were taught by the same person,” Blake said, “so I knew he would endure some of the same type pain and hardship I did as an African-American, but I also knew our grandmother taught us to not quit, to still smile, still show respect to the ones that mistreat you and reach for the stars.”

Frazier aimed for the galaxies when he joined the Army in 1985 as a rigger, but his sightlines were blurred by the ugly face of racial animus at his first assignment with the 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment at Fort Benning, Ga.

“It certainly wasn’t easy being assigned to a Ranger battalion,” he recalled. “I can count on both of my hands how many minorities were in the Ranger battalion, and then, I can count on one hand how many African Americans could hold their own. Yeah, you were by yourself, and there were pockets of separatism and boys clubs, so you had to be strong to handle that type of assignment.”

In the early 1980s, the Army was undergoing a major post-war transition and was refashioning its image to attract more minorities. It was working through a number of challenges to include improving race relations in many of its elite units.

Even at 17, Frazier had no illusions that discrimination could disappear simply with the signing of a policy letter. He knew donning Army fatigues did not necessarily remove the ignorance, prejudices, insensitivities and biases many Soldiers brought with them. Therefore, he was not astonished when he heard the n-word or when someone acted in an ignorant or insulting way. Case in point: several years ago, a senior Soldier incredulously asked him what he was doing at the Military Freefall School.

“I’m here to go to school,” Frazier recalled replying to that Soldier. “He said, ‘No! What are you doing here? Black people don’t skydive.’”

Nevertheless, Frazier strove on, carrying the accepted burden of race without broadly antagonizing those who had issues with his. That is not to say he was passive.

“I think I survived by never compromising my values,” he explained. “I never allowed people to tell racial jokes (of any kind about any race), call me something other than my name or anything like that.”

Frazier said Ranger battalion experiences set the tone for the remainder of his career. There, he learned that discipline, physical fitness and a high level of expertise were incontestable, powerful arguments for respect and belonging – even if they did not move people to forget his skin color.

“Once you showed people you could perform, no one could touch you,” he said. “That’s what I took from the Ranger battalion.”

Frazier performed well afterward, gleaning much along the way as he opened himself up to new experiences and further enlightenment.

“If you learn to come out of your comfort zone, you learn there are some really good people in the world, and I’ve met some great people throughout the Army – of all colors,” he said. “You just have to be comfortable with learning new things. Once you do that, you’re like, ‘Oh, this is not as bad as I thought it was.’”

Frazier was accepted into the Warrant Officer Cohort after nine years of service, and went on to serve his country during operations Just Cause in Panama and Desert Storm/Shield in Saudi Arabia, among several others.

Through it all, he earned a reputation as a solid, compassionate leader and straight shooter. That reputation was tested during his first tour here a decade ago as the deputy chief of ADFSD’s Instructional Division, when a parachute rigger died following an airborne operation at McLaney Drop Zone located in the post’s northern area. Frazier sadly informed an auditorium full of mostly rigger students who had witnessed the mishap that a fellow Soldier had died at the hospital and was no longer among their ranks.

“It was just mindboggling (to hear) the sounds and screams (of distress) I heard then,” said Frazier, visibly shaken at his own recollection.

Shortly after hearing the news, a handful of students expressed their fears, vowing to never jump again and signaling a desire to change their military occupational skill. Transparency was necessary under those conditions, Frazier said, because leaders “needed to continue to motivate those Soldiers to move forward with their training.”

“In two weeks,” Frazier declared to the students, “we’re all going to go back up, and we’re all going to jump again with that same parachute – but on Fort Pickett.”

The ADFSD cadre were the first to jump at Fort Pickett (McLaney was closed because of the incident) as a way to inspire confidence in the students and their equipment. All of the students graduated, including those who initially wanted to end their training.

On one hand the incident laid bare the inherent dangers of airborne operations, said Frazier. On the other, it brought to light what is necessary to continue the mission.

“It goes back to those Ranger battalion days,” he said in retrospect. “No matter what the mission is, we have to continue to move forward. … If you’re preparing for war and someone goes down, you cannot stop the war. You’ve got to motivate your people, get them back to the wire and continue to fight.”

Frazier, who investigated several deaths as an airdrop systems technician, admitted the student death was the most traumatizing of his career and that he is “taking care of it.”

He is “taking care of it” on another front as well, working hard in the areas of training and safety to prevent injury or loss of life.

“That’s why I work so hard as an airdrop systems technician, because you never want to hear those screams or talk to parents about losing their son or daughter,” he said.

Look no further than CW4 Kevin Sims, Frazier’s deputy, to affirm his superior’s work ethic. He said Frazier’s commitment to the profession was evident the minute he conveyed his expectations.

“When I arrived here and in-processed … he gave me 62 items under my duties and responsibilities,” explained Sims, who has known Frazier 15 years. “My reaction was, ‘What in the world have I gotten myself in to?’... But I’ll tell you, I’ve never been challenged in my career to move to the next level than the way I’ve been challenged working with Mr. Frazier. Really, he was grooming me for the next level.”

Like Sims, Staff Sgt. Jonathan Echavez, a rigger instructor, is part of a legion of Soldiers Frazier mentored throughout his career. Echavez first met the “chief” in 2012 as a student. With Frazier’s support and encouragement, he has declared he will one day walk in the chief’s shoes.

“He’s stepping out, but he has trained NCOs like me to take his place,” he said. “So, that’s why I’m here.”

Echavez was recently accepted to attend warrant officer school.

Retired 1st Sgt. Kyle Montgomery, chief of training at the QM School’s Automated Logistical Course – and pastor to Frazier and his wife of 32 years, Glenda – said Frazier is all about supporting people, especially the vulnerable.

“He’s an upfront guy, always honest, a champion of the underdog – that’s probably one of his greatest passions,” he said. “He can’t stand to see people mistreated. That says a lot about his character to me.”

The sentiments from those who know Frazier do not surprise former Command Sgt. Maj. Mary Brown. She was assigned with Frazier four different times and has known him his entire career.

“He’s top notch at all he does,” said the 2014 retiree, who calls Frazier “Little Brother.” “He’s a great friend, an awesome father and husband, and an awesome Soldier. He was someone I could depend upon, someone I could trust and someone who has always been in my corner, as I have been in his.”

Frazier escorted Brown to the aircraft for her last jump in 2013 at Pickett. Brown was present for Frazier’s last jump, as well.

Blake said her cousin’s sterling military record and the respect he garnered as a leader, father and husband is an immense source of pride for their family.

“I think he has made the Army a better place by continuing to embrace the values of his grandmother,” she said. “His accomplishment is something that will go down in our family history book – he is the first warrant officer, the first CW5, and he is the first of our family to reach a glorious 35 years in the military. We are all proud of him, and I am just so happy he took the leap of faith and joined the military some 35 years ago.”

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