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Military Skills Lead to Better Life in Civilian World

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Oct. 15, 2002 – Retired Army Reserve Command Sgt. Maj. Lee M. Rivas and Army Reserve Col. Samuel Calberon sing the same tune when it comes to the importance of setting aside a month to highlight Hispanic American heritage and culture.

They said the heritage month showcases the contributions Hispanic Americans have made to the defense of the nation, their communities and to the country as a whole. They also said the armed forces is the ideal place for young Hispanic Americans to learn skills that lead to a better life in the civilian world.

Therefore, Rivas said young Hispanic service members should take advantage of all the educational opportunities they can while serving in the military.

"Then one day, you'll look back and say, 'I remember when I was a young Hispanic without any type of civilian skills, and the military gave me skills to be able to progress and become a productive citizen of the United States,'" said Rivas, national vice commander of the American GI Forum and state commander in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia. He's also chief of the force integration division, Army Personnel Command, in Alexandria, Va.

The American GI Forum is a predominantly Hispanic veterans family organization that was chartered by Congress in 1948.

Young Hispanics who are trying to succeed in the military should "stay attuned to the military, because the military has a lot to contribute," Rivas said. "A lot of Hispanics come into the military without the skills necessary to survive in the civilian community. The armed forces recognize that we have to have a military system that's able to transition skills from military to the civilian work force. And the military has done a super job of classifying the jobs and making sure they have a transition program to the civilian sector."

Hispanic service members should use their military skills to make a better life for themselves in civilian life, he said. "Then as a civilian, you have to stay proactive and accept challenges so you can better yourself," Rivas added.

Using himself as an example of what young Hispanics can accomplish in the armed forces, Rivas said he graduated from high school in 1971 and started attending a community college. But after having an appendectomy, he dropped out of college and joined the Army in 1972.

"There I was, a young Hispanic in Texas not knowing what my future would be other than doing farm-type work in West Texas," Rivas said. "My older brother served in the Army from 1969 to 1971 and I thought he'd done great in the service and after he got out. So I told him I wanted to join the Army and he said, "Join it, it will be good for you.'

"I wanted to get out of the Texas farm working rut and do something better for myself," said Rivas. He took advantage of educational opportunities in the military and earned a bachelor's of science degree while on active duty and is now working on a master's degree in public administration at Central Michigan University.

After serving nine years as a personnel specialist and reaching the rank of sergeant first class, Rivas left active duty and joined the Army Reserve.

Pointing out that Hispanics have served in the highest ranks in the military, from sergeant major to four-star general, Rivas said that's the type of information that should be stressed during Hispanic American Heritage Month. The month, he said, should be used to acknowledge the contributions Hispanics have made, not only to the military community, but also the civilian community.

"This shows that we have the entrepreneurship, leadership and military and civilian skills to excel in this country, said Rivas, who was born in Corpus Christi, Texas, and moved to Lubbock with his family at age 15 to work on farms. "Even those noncitizens, the immigrants, have the right to excel."

He lauds the military for changing its policies over the years and making it possible for Hispanics and other minorities to excel within its ranks. Rivas said while he was on active duty, the military started sending service members to the Equal Employment Opportunity Management Institute at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla.

"It was called race relations at that time," he recalled. "We had EEO NCOs and EEO officers acknowledging the diversity in the military, but it didn't really come to light until I got out in 1982.

"That's when the military started the diversity program through EEO programs," Rivas said. "There was more acknowledgement of diversity, not only Hispanics, but Asian, blacks and American Indians. It was the Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez era.

"Americans started realizing that there is diversity -- not one race, but a diversity of races that make up the United States of America," Rivas said.

Calberon was looking to improve his chances for a better life, too, when he enlisted in the Army in 1967. "I ended up in Vietnam and served on active duty for eight years," said Calberon, who worked in aviation logistics and was a door gunner on a Huey helicopter.

"I used the GI Bill to go to college and got into civil service," said Calberon, an Army Reserve colonel who commands the 475th Quartermaster Group, Farrell, Pa. In civilian life, he's the deputy director for budget at the Department of Commerce. He earned a bachelor's degree in business administration at the University of Arizona at Tucson and a master's degree in public administration at the Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania.

He served as an enlisted man for about 13 years before becoming a warrant officer and later, receiving a direct commission to first lieutenant.

His advice to young Hispanics is if they're not in the military, stay in school. If they are in the military, they should latch onto a mentor who can teach them the ropes as they move through the career ladder.

"They should look for the tough assignments so they can show what they have," the colonel said. "The military is an excellent opportunity for Hispanic young men and women to come in and get the technical skills that are going to help to transition from military to civilian life."

A major problem among Hispanic veterans is they don't take advantage of all their veterans benefits when they return to civilian life, Calberon noted.

"The American GI Forum needs to work on that," said Calberon, the forum's chief operating officer in Washington.

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