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Hispanic-American Achievement Highlighted At DoD Ceremony

By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Sept. 29, 2000 – Hispanic Americans -- traditional supporters of defense and valued contributors to the nations cultural heritage -- are poised for an expanded role on the national stage in the 21st century.

Senior DoD leaders highlighted Hispanic-American achievement -- past, present and future -- at the National Hispanic Heritage Month Observance ceremony held Sept. 26 at the Pentagon. The annual observance, which celebrates the contributions of Hispanic Americans to the culture and accomplishments of the nation, began Sept. 15 and continues through Oct. 15.

The collective knowledge and strength of the Hispanic community are woven into American society and as a result our nation has grown, said Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Bernard D. Rostker, who represented Defense Secretary William S. Cohen. In the coming years Hispanic Americans will become the nations second-largest ethnic group.

"Today, America is enhanced by a generation of Hispanic doctors, lawyers, and national leaders of proven accomplishment, said Rostker, who named Army Secretary Louis Caldera as one of many examples of Hispanic-American excellence within the Defense Department. Born of Mexican immigrant parents, Caldera is a Harvard-trained lawyer and a West Point graduate. Now, he is the Armys senior civilian leader.

He spends considerable amounts of his time highlighting the roles of Hispanic Americans in the Army, Rostker said of Caldera. He often speaks of his drive to increase opportunity for Hispanics joining the Army, and as the countrys largest employer of youths, he has made recruiting Hispanics one of his primary goals.

Hispanic Americans have a long tradition of military service, Rostker said. Thirty-eight have received the Medal of Honor since its inception in 1861, to include Vietnam War heroes such as the late Army Master Sgt. Roy P. Benavidez, whose name will go on a Navy ship, and former Army medic, Spc. Alfred Rascon, who received his Medal of Honor in February from President Bill Clinton. Rascon received his award late because of a decades-old paperwork snafu.

Our history is filled with Hispanic-American acts of valor and gallantry and our future will be defined by their contributions, Rostker said. However, although Hispanic Americans make up over 11 percent of the population, they are presently underrepresented in uniform. Just 7.9 percent of todays active-duty service members are Hispanic, according to the Defense Almanac.

Rostker said he, Caldera, and other senior DoD officials are working to enable Hispanic Americans to obtain more representation, opportunities, and positions of leadership - military and civilian -- within the department.

Victor Vasquez Jr., the deputy assistant secretary of defense for military community and family policy, oversees DoDs worldwide school system. He noted that the observances theme, Children: Our Hope for the Future, was especially appropriate in regard to the educational needs of young Hispanic Americans and their future impact on the nation.

By the year 2050, one in four people, 25 percent of the population, will be of Hispanic American heritage, Vasquez said. By 2030, he said, Latino students ages 5-18 will number almost 16 million, or 25 percent of the total U.S. school population.

Vasquez said a third of todays Hispanic Americans are under the age of 15. Many leave high school to earn money to help out their economically pressed families.

If the children are truly our source for the future, then we need to begin to pay attention to alleviating those situations that create our ability to predict who is going to drop out, he said.

Vasquez, too, worked as a farm laborer as a youth, and related his use of education as a springboard to a better life. He also showed a 10-minute video about the hardships encountered by Southwest migrant farm laborers and their children to illustrate his points.

I know what it takes for young people to make it out and break the cycle of poverty, Vasquez said. I would have never, ever imagined back then that Id be here in the Pentagon.

Other senior DoD officials at the observance included William E. Leftwich III, deputy assistant secretary of defense for equal opportunity; Gail H. McGinn, the principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for force management policy; and Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Michael J. Aguilar, deputy commander, U.S. Marine Corps Forces, South.

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