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Hispanic American Exceeds Childhood Dreams; Becomes Marine General

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Oct. 3, 2001 – Michael J. Aguilar was in the seventh grade when he decided he wanted to be a military pilot and fly combat missions. Only part of his youthful plan came true.

He became a pilot, but never flew a combat mission. However, Aguilar accomplished something far beyond his wildest youthful dreams. He became a brigadier general in the Marine Corps, one of three Hispanic Americans to reach that rank in the corps' history. Aguilar is deputy commander, U.S. Marine Forces South in Miami and commanding general of Fleet Marine Forces South.

A graduate of Serra Catholic High School in Gardena, Calif., Aguilar said he transferred there from public school. He felt Serra offered a better education -- the kind he needed to become a military pilot.

Aguilar was a member of the Marine Corps platoon leaders' class while attending Long Beach State College and the Officers' Candidate School program. After being commissioned a second lieutenant in July 1971, he left college, went on active duty and was sent directly to the Naval Air Training Command, Pensacola, Fla., for flight training.

He thought he was fast-tracked to realizing his childhood dreams of being a combat pilot. "That's partly why I left college," Aguilar said.

But that's not how things turned out. "By the time I finished flight training in November 1972, we were no longer sending Marine aviation units to Vietnam," he said.

Aguilar contented himself flying helicopters throughout his career. He's accumulated nearly 4,000 accident-free flight hours in H-1, UH-1E Huey and AH-1J Cobra attack helicopters. He served as officer in charge of a Cobra detachment and has held a variety of jobs at aviation squadron, group and wing levels.

Still clinging to his childhood dream, Aguilar jumped at the chance to fly combat missions in the desert when Iraq invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990. He immediately volunteered to join Marine Aircraft Group 70, the 7th Marine Expeditionary Brigade's aviation combat element.

"We were the first Marine unit to fly into Saudi," he said. "But I didn't fly any combat missions."

During Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, he was executive officer of Marine Aircraft Group 16 operating out of Al Jubayl, Saudi Arabia, and later up north near Kuwait.

After the war, Aguilar returned to the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing at Camp Pendleton, Calif., and assumed command of Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 267. He later served as the Marine Aircraft Group 39 executive officer.

In August 1993, he attended the Naval War College and was promoted to colonel that October. In July 1994, Aguilar returned to MAG 39 as executive officer and later became group commander. His next assignment was as the senior military assistant to the undersecretary of defense for policy at the Pentagon.

After being promoted to brigadier general, Aguilar became deputy director for operations in the Joint Chiefs of Staff National Military Command Center. In July 1999, he was assigned as commanding general, Joint Task Force Panama, where he oversaw force protection during the drawdown of U.S. forces and the transfer of property and equipment to the government of Panama. That December, he became deputy commander, U.S. Marine Corps Forces South, Miami, and commander of Fleet Marine Forces South.

The Marine Corps' third Hispanic American general said setting aside a month to observe his heritage and culture is "a great opportunity to celebrate the diversity of this great country of ours. It's also a chance to highlight the unique and rich contributions the Hispanic community makes to our country."

However, he said, the types of activities held on military installations and ships at sea to highlight Hispanic American contributions should be left to the local commander "because of the unique circumstances of each installation and ship."

"It's not so important what you do, just as long as you take the time to recognize the contributions made past and present by our Hispanic service members," Aguilar said.

His advice to young Hispanic Americans who want to succeed in the military and life as a whole, is a resounding "stay in school!"

"My biggest concern with the Hispanic community is our poor record in education," he said. "We make a lot of news about the future size of the Hispanic community. I wish we, as a group, would make as much news about our educational achievements."

Aguilar pointed out that the Hispanic community has the lowest high school and college graduation rate of all groups in the nation. "This is not a record we should be proud of, and it's one that needs all of our attention," said Aguilar, who went on to finish college while in the Marines and today holds a bachelor's degree in business administration and a master's in strategic studies and national security affairs. "I don't want to be part of the largest uneducated group in our country nor should any other Hispanic."

Aguilar doesn't speak much Spanish, but he's attending school to learn the language of his ancestors. "Unfortunately, I'm not fluent in Spanish. I'm not completely ignorant of the language, I'm just not fluent," he said.

"Not learning to speak Spanish was a choice made by my parents," he continued. "They wanted us to be fluent in our native language -- English -- because we consider ourselves Americans of Hispanic descent."

However, he said, his lack of Spanish language skills has never made him feel "less Hispanic" or less proud of being one.

"The language is an important part of our culture, but it's not all of the culture," he emphasized. "No one could be prouder of his heritage than I am. "My grandfather fought with Zapata's army (Emiliano Zapata, 1879-1919, Mexican revolutionary leader and agrarian reformer). I cook a mean Mexican meal, love Mexican music and probably know more about Mexican history than most."

The general noted that Hispanic families have a close-knit relationship and strong sense of family support, which runs parallel with the same values the military exposes -- loyalty to a group or family and high sense of responsibility toward that group. He said the values he learned as a child are part of the military culture.

His father, Michael Aguilar Sr., died three years ago at age 75. His mother, Celia Aguilar, 75, is semi-retired, but does volunteer work at a local grammar school.

The second oldest of four siblings, Aguilar's older sister, Sylvia, works in the juvenile probation courts in Portland, Ore. One brother, Gil, is a deputy sheriff with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department and another, Al, is in the printing business in San Diego.

Aguilar has been a geographical bachelor while in Miami. His wife, Carol, is an elementary school teacher in Vista, Calif., near San Diego. The couple has two daughters, Lain, 30, and Danielle, 24, and a son, Michael, 26. He plans to move back to California after he retired in January 2002.

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageMarine Corps Brig. Gen. Michael J. Aguilar, deputy commander of Marine Corps Forces, South, in Miami presents Maurice Harrell of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., a plaque honoring him as one of Broward County's outstanding JROTC cadets. The plaque was presented on May 19, 2000. Harrell went through recruit training at Parris Island, S.C., that summer. Photo by Staff Sgt. Chuck Albrecht, USMC.  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageBrig. Gen. Michael J. Aguilar is the third Hispanic American to reach the rank of general in Marine Corps history. Photo by Staff Sgt. Chuck Albrecht, USMC.   
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