Hero Marine Colonel, Once Dropout, Now Eyes PhD.
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Oct. 30, 1998 Silver Star recipient Marine Corps Col. Felipe Torres is not only a war hero, he's a hero in the Hispanic community and a role model for the youth of America.
When many other 17-year-old students were preparing to graduate from high school in New York City, Torres had just finished the ninth grade. His grandmother hadn't allowed him to start school until he was 9 -- "I was 11 years old in the second grade," the Puerto Rico native recalled. The teen-ager dropped out and followed his older brothers Jose and Jenaro into the military.
"I didn't want to be the Lone Ranger back home," the youngest Torres said. "Vietnam was picking up and I didn't want to stay out of the action. I felt an obligation to join, just like my brothers did." Jose had joined the Air Force and Torres thought about following, but the lack of a diploma thwarted that idea.
"The Marines seemed like a challenge," he said. "I was in peak physical condition, competing in several different sports, like martial arts tournaments, bicycle racing, track, handball and others." He enlisted in the Marine Corps on his 17th birthday, July 13, 1966.
The one-time high school dropout is now adviser to the Marine Corps commandant on equal opportunity matters and head of the manpower equal opportunity branch at Quantico Marine Corps Base, Va. He also went back to school and now hopes to complete the requirements for a doctorate degree in administration and management in a few years.
Listed in the "Who's Who" book of Isshin Ryu karate, Torres is a karate instructor and serves as a chief referee or judge at tournaments. Still an avid sportsman, his hobbies include running, working out, bicycle racing, camping, hiking, hunting and competitive shooting.
Featured in the book, "Khe Sanh -- Siege in the Clouds" by Eric Hammel, Torres was in the thick of battle during the 1968 Tet Offensive in South Vietnam. His exploits earned him meritorious combat promotions to corporal and sergeant. He later received the Silver Star for gallantry as a platoon sergeant during Operation Meade River in November and December 1968.
The Silver Star citation highlights three acts of bravery between Nov. 30 and Dec. 8, 1968.
On Nov. 30, he and his platoon raced through 1,500 meters of open rice paddies to prevent the capture of a downed helicopter. "The enemy was closer, but we got there first. We fought all night," said Torres, a marathon runner. "I used a .50-caliber machine gun from the chopper to assist me in maintaining control."
Four days later, his unit's lead squad on patrol was ambushed and pinned down by fire from an enemy bunker. Torres led the rear elements forward, directed their fire and knocked out the bunker.
When his unit was again pinned down by an enemy machine gun on Dec. 8, Torres directed his platoon out of harm's way and then attacked and destroyed the enemy bunker with two rockets.
Miraculously, he said, he survived those nine days unscratched.
He began his quest for an education 18 months later when he was assigned to the 1st Marine Brigade at Marine Corps Air Station, Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, in May 1970.
"I got my general equivalency diploma, and later a high school equivalency diploma as a sergeant after returning from Vietnam," the colonel said. "Shortly thereafter, I started attending night school to get my bachelor's degree."
The Marines appointed Torres a warrant officer in 1973 and a first lieutenant in 1977. Selected for the Corps' College Degree Completion Program in 1984, he graduated with honors in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in occupational education from Southwest Texas State University at San Marcos, Texas. He earned a master's degree in management from Webster University (San Diego site) in 1991.
Education is his passion when he talks today to young Hispanics. He tells them they, too, can be successful if they complete high school and go on to college. "Education is one the most critical factors for success -- stay in school" is his message.
"The Hispanic statistics on school completion are dismal," he said. "It's a problem that affects all of us and all of us need to get involved in being part of the solution.
"Failure to me means not trying," Torres said. "I haven't failed until after I have given something my best shot over time and have come short of the mark. Nothing is out of reach. You are only limited by your imagination. The only limits I've known are those I placed on myself."
The Torres Approach
Marine Corps Col. Felipe Torres was a high school dropout who turned his life around with luck and pluck in the School of Hard Knocks. He doesn't want young people following his footsteps, though. To young audiences today, he says, "Stay in school." He addresses mainly Hispanic audiences, but his distilled wisdom applies universally:
- Encourage all those around you to complete high school.
- Do not allow any relative or friend to drop out of high school.
- Determine to go to college.
- Never eliminate yourself from any competition.
- Always try to reach your goals, because not trying is one sure way of not getting something.
- You can accomplish almost anything if you are sincere in your pursuit and you invest the necessary energy toward achieving it.