Air Commodore David Case: Being true to himself by John Mair
Stabroek News
January 27, 2002

At the very centre of the American political elite in the 'war against terrorism' is General Colin Powell. Today, he's the Secretary of State; in the Gulf War a decade ago he was a military hero. A black American of West Indian heritage who has made it. In his landmark Labour Party conference speech last autumn, British Prime Minister Tony Blair called for a "British Colin Powell." Some think they have found him in Air Commodore David Case, a black Briton, and like Powell of West Indian heritage. He is the highest ranking non white in the British armed forces. Case himself is not so sure:

"I am not keen on being referred to as the 'British Colin Powell.' He is a tremendous man who achieved major success in circumstances that are quite different to mine. He is an inspiration. I am just David Case. Someone who happens to have done reasonably well in his chosen profession."

Case's iconic position, as a British black figurehead, has brought fame and attention, not always to his liking:

"I am not aware of any advantages of being black in the military but then I am not sure that there are many in other fields of endeavour.

"The disadvantage in recent times, particularly since there has been significant press interest, has been the potential danger of being singled out for attention."

Today Air Commodore Case is based At Royal Air Force Innsworth in Gloucestershire and is Director of Policy and Planning for the Force, responsible for aspects of welfare support for Servicemen and women. His career has not yet reached its zenith - he could still be the first black Air Marshal yet to him, his colour has been neutral in his rise up to those higher echelons of the RAF:

"I am not aware of having suffered any racism, overt or covert within the RAF. Of course, I don't know what people say or do behind my back, but I have a feeling that I wouldn't be where I am now if this had been and continued to be a really major issue in the Service. Colour is not an issue that I have been dragging around with me, nor has it been pushed in my face, either positively or negatively. Advancement here is on merit, and though I don't necessarily see myself as a role model for members of the black or ethnic communities, if my success reflects positively on them and on the RAF then that is a good thing."

Away from the confines and discipline of military service, he recognises that "institutional racism," as the Macpherson Report into the handling of he murder of Stephen Lawrence labelled the culture of the Metropolitan Police, exists, although he doubts its extent:

"It is a term that has gained rapid currency following use in particular tragic circumstances and it would be easy to use the term glibly. Who are they? There are racists about in this country and, of course, elsewhere. My experience within and without the RAF indicates that the majority of people in this country are not."

Racism or not, Britain is a tough country for non-white immigrants.

The old institutions like royalty, the City, the armed forces and the BBC are the toughest nuts of all for them to crack. Hierarchy and tradition rules, and in the words of BBC Director General Greg Dyke, some of the organisations are "hideously white." David Case has managed to penetrate most, if not all, the ceilings, glass or otherwise. The boy from Werk en Rust (Work and Rest) in Georgetown, has reached for the sky professionally and very nearly touched it.

But he doesn't forget either his origins or his colour:

"Being Guyanese to me means being someone with Caribbean, slave, British, background with a strong focus on education. Being black has not been a major burden that I have carried around with me.

However, since my youth I have been conscious of the stereotypes and recognized that being black is not easy."

His glittering military career started in very modest material circumstances. His mother, Enid, emigrated to England in 1955 then sent for her only son, David, the following year. Not that he has too many recollections of Guyana (formerly British Guiana). He left at the tender age of five.

"My memories of early childhood in Guyana, or BG, as it was referred to often by my mother and other relatives, is very dim, but not surprisingly so given my departure for England at an early age. A picture of me standing with a slate provided something of a setting.

"But I do remember arriving in Britain and the fact that it was, cold, dark and gloomy." He does, on the other hand, remember much of Beckenham in Kent, south of London, where they eventually settled. Enid Case applied herself as a seamstress and scrimped and saved for her only son to get the education she thought he deserved. She the classic first generation immigrant, he the classic beneficiary. Case recalls the lows:

"[Being] brought up in various parts of south London, for many years living in multiple occupancy accommodation was a fairly humble start but not out of the ordinary for many people. I did feel at home; I knew no different."

Materially poor but spiritually and educationally strong he attributes much of his current position to his mother's endeavour, her drive and the values she instilled in him.

"Education, Christianity, discipline, manners, achievement, were always important. Hard work was expected and my mother gave an uncomplaining example. However, the ability to enjoy oneself was also imparted to me. The main influences on my life and career have not been from an abstract perspective of a Guyanese background, but rather through the people who nurtured me and with whom I grew up."

His big break was making the eleven plus (SSEE) cut to Beckenham grammar school. Once there, he thrived, was made Head Boy there and also found his niche and metier in the ATC.

"Military aspirations came as a result of a growing interest in aircraft and aviation more generally, which led to me joining my school's Air Training Corps squadron. The RAF attracted as an elite professional organization with lots of opportunities. I wanted to fly and was not daunted by the prospect. The RAF being the youngest and a highly technical Service has perhaps been more cosmopolitan in its intake and relaxed in its outlook."

Then entry to the very same RAF. Firstly, he took off to Belfast in Northern Ireland to read aeronautical engineering at The Queen's University which he remembers fondly. Being a black man in Belfast then, as it still is now, was a fairly unique experience: "It [colour] wasn't an issue. I suppose I was something of a novelty but I always had the feeling of being warmly welcomed in Northern Ireland."

After Queen's, Belfast, to Cranwell, the RAF academy for their cream, where he emerged with the Sword of Honour as the best cadet of his year. Flying as a career option had been ruled out on the grounds of eyesight deficiences. Instead, he climbed the RAF engineering and management ladder through postings in Britain and Germany. The trajectory was upwards:

"Engineering was not entirely a second choice as I had decided to read aeronautical engineering before I learned that I would be unable to fulfil my ambition of becoming an RAF pilot. It was my second choice of specialization within the Service and I have never looked back.

"No ceilings, glass or otherwise, or special hurdles were placed in my way. The RAF prides itself on being an organization in which advancement is based on merit. I believe that the evidence of my achievement reflects this." David Case is married to Joan, a fellow Guyanese whom he met in South East London. They have two children - Timothy, aged 15, and Jonathan, 13, and he is now waiting for the right moment to take them to his homeland which he himself has not seen for forty-four years. But, although he now sees himself as 'British' his Guyanese roots still remain. "I like cassava bread, chow mein and curry, but I'm not too fond of the dry food which my mother used to tell me was good for me."

The diasapora - the Guyanese in the UK - recognised his signal achievement by presenting him with one of their inaugural High Commission Awards last year. His pride was evident, as was his dancing prowess to the steel band after the formal event had finished. This immigrant may have made it, though not quite yet to the same military and political heights as Colin Powell, but he still retains a sense of modesty and place. p"I hope there aren't any more David Case's; one is probably enough, but what I would say is that integrity is probably the most important characteristic. You must be true to yourself. Education, hard work, perseverance and many other factors are important, but you should always try to enjoy yourself because it will be good for you and for those around you.

"The RAF motto is Per Ardua ad Astra; through toil (or hardship) to the stars. I am delighted to have reached one-star rank. Further advancement, should that come, would be, as it always has been, on the basis of merit in competition with my counterparts. We shall see. What I do want to do, is keep enjoying life. Arguably, I need to keep my feet on the ground."

Work and Rest. Work and Progress. David Case is an example for all.