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Navy Steward's Son Spurns Custom, Rises as Marine Officer

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 25, 1999 – Rayfel Bachiller once dreamed of being a Navy steward, just like his father. But his father convinced him to aim higher. So he did -- but not in the Navy.

A colonel today, Bachiller is the highest-ranking Philippine American in the Marine Corps. Make that the entire Navy Department. His wife, Marine Corps Lt. Col. Lisa C. Bachiller, is one of the highest-ranking women in the Corps.

Bachiller is director of special projects for the commandant. He handles special ceremonies and events and maintains liaison with the White House, secretary of state and foreign Marine services. His wife is in charge of the land use and military construction branch at Marine Corps headquarters in Arlington, Va.

Becoming a Marine was "kind of an unusual thing," he said, because he attended the University of (Columbia) South Carolina on a Navy ROTC scholarship. "I was honing my skills to become a Navy line officer. Just before my senior year, I went in to determine what field I would go into, thinking I was going to be part of a division aboard a ship with lots of sailors to work with."

But, Bachiller said, that was the racially turbulent late '60s and he was told, "quite bluntly and candidly, that the Navy wasn't ready for a Filipino line officer." The ROTC officer told Bachiller the Navy was going to offer him a commission as an administrative or supply officer.

"The supply officer was in charge of the stewards who served the chow aboard ships and polished the officers' shoes," he said.

He remembers not thinking the officer was discriminating against him, he said. "He was looking out for me, because there wasn't a prejudicial bone in his body. He suggested I try the Marine Corps, which I'd never considered," Bachiller said. "I wasn't the model of what I thought a Marine to be -- six-foot-two, eyes of blue and a chiseled jaw. But I followed his advice.

A psychology major, he was commissioned a second lieutenant in July 1970 through the Officer Candidate School at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va.

His father, the late Chief Petty Officer Raynero Bachiller, joined the Navy in the 1920s as a teen-ager. Joining the Navy and serving honorably was a way for Filipinos to earn U.S. citizenship. His mother, Socorro, 75, still lives in the family home in Southwest Washington. Before immigrating, she served with Philippine American guerrillas during World War II.

As a youngster growing up in a Navy family, "I thought I was always going to be in a position of servitude -- like stewards," Bachiller said. "But my father made that type of work honorable duty in his Navy. He said it doesn't matter which ladder you climb, it's one rung at a time and progress means you go from one rung to another based on your experiences, proficiency and compliments of those who are grading you and encouraging you to reach for a higher rung.

"He served aboard the USS Lexington, one of the aircraft carriers that was sunk during the Battle of the Coral Sea," the colonel continued. "I read about some of his exploits, for which he was awarded the Bronze Star. People told him he should have gotten a higher award for what he did, but back then, Filipinos were not put in for big awards."

When the Lexington was hit, the senior Bachiller was credited with saving the lives of sailors in sick bay by climbing through a ventilation duct to open a hatch so the men could escape.

The colonel said tremendous improvements for minorities in the services have occurred since he became a Marine nearly 30 years ago. "When I joined the Marine Corps, I was watching over on the Navy side, Filipinos being stewards, supply or administrative clerks," he said. "You didn't see them in engineering, weapons or as corpsmen. Over the years, I saw these jobs open up in the services not only for Filipinos, but also African Americans, Hispanics and other minorities."

Today's military services offer opportunities for everyone to do things civilians don't have a chance to do, Bachiller said. "You get to be an ambassador in your country's uniform and you get tremendous experience in foreign nations. You also get leadership lessons you can't buy on the outside. The leadership you learn in the military is a handed-down-type of leadership that can't be taught in the classroom."

Blaming the past for a lack of accomplishment today is no excuse, the colonel said. "I grew up in a bad neighborhood. When I go back there, I see some of my peers still sitting on the streets drinking wine out of a bag. They're breeding youngsters who will grow up and say, 'If that's all I've got to look forward to in life, why should I try?' I say, if you get off your can and use a thing called self-motivation, you can succeed."

Even with all the positive changes Bachiller said he's seen in society and in the military for minorities, he said there's still a need for ethnic observances like Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. His ideal world is free of prejudice and people are judged by their character and expertise rather than the color of their skin. "But this isn't an ideal world," he said.

"I hope that somewhere down the road these celebrations are just a remembrance to revitalize pride in your heritage and culture, rather than to bring forth how far you've struggled and how much further you may have to go," Bachiller said.

In the meanwhile, ethnic observances are necessary, he said, "not so much to Asian Pacific Americans, African Americans or Hispanic Americans -- they're aware of it. It's to bring awareness to the rest of the ethnicities."

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageMarine Corps Col. Rayfel Bachiller, the highest- ranking Philippine American in the Navy Department, and his wife, Marine Corps Lt. Col. Lisa C. Bachiller, one of the highest-ranking women in the Corps. Rudi Williams  
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