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Heritage Observances Build Sense of Value, Self-Worth

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Nov. 4, 1999 – Taking note of who "we" are is just one reason DoD has a calendar of annual heritage months.

"We're one country with a common set of values and we're strong enough to celebrate the diversity of a great many people who make up the fabric of our nation," Army Secretary Louis Caldera said. "As an American of Hispanic heritage, I'm proud of the role Hispanics have played in our military and the life of our nation."

Caldera and other top DoD leaders of Hispanic heritage recently discussed the worth and importance of the department's observances through the prism of Hispanic American Heritage Month. The month helps instill a sense of value and self-worth to the Hispanic American community, they said. It gives others snapshots of their rich diversity.

Caldera, a 1978 West Point graduate, said the ethnic heritage months recognize the contributions made by different groups -- Hispanic Americans in September and October, African Americans in February, Native Americans in November and Asian-Pacific Americans in May. DoD also marks March as Women's History Month.

The annual observances celebrate all the things from all the different countries we and our parents and grandparents come from, Caldera said. "As a land of immigrants, it's a way to preserve ties and to recognize that we're one people from many different roots," he said.

He pointed out that Americans of all backgrounds have a lot to gain and a lot to contribute to the armed forces. One of the best ways to celebrate America's diversity in the military is to help young service members achieve all they can be, through a commitment to the ideals of equal opportunity.

This means "the opportunity to be challenged and to move up the ladder of success takes hard work, teamwork, focusing on your goals, believing in yourself and believing you have the ability to make a contribution," the secretary said. "When we help people rise as far as their God-given talents will take them, that's the true promise of what America means."

Ana Maria Salazar, deputy assistant secretary of defense for drug enforcement policy and support, said the annual observance holds a special meaning for her.

"It's a moment where you can sit down and reflect on what we do as Hispanics in our work," said Salazar, whose responsibilities include the preparation and implementation of DoD's counterdrug program. The month reminds us of how we need to be looking toward a more all-inclusive United States, she said.

She said a number of things can be done during heritage months and throughout the year to foster better understanding and relationships among ethnic groups.

Her office's programs do that, in a manner of speaking, she said. "Our programs encourage not only individuals within the DoD family, but also individuals who live in communities around DoD installations not to use drugs," she said. So when she thinks about Hispanic Heritage Month, for instance, looking for ways to include people from and around the community comes second nature, she said.

"Not only to create a better understanding what DoD does, but to highlight the role that both active and Reserve people can have as mentors and leaders within their communities, Salazar said.

"All cultures should be celebrated in the way we do Hispanic Heritage Month," said Victor Vasquez Jr., deputy assistant secretary of defense for personnel support, families and education. "That brings a sense of value and self-worth to an entire community and also to individuals." It helps people realize "they came from something that allows them to be where they are today," he added.

"My father constantly reinforced my Latino culture and Mexican American heritage," said Vasquez. "He made sure I learned about Mexican history and cultural activities going back to the Aztecs, as a reminder for me of where our family originated. While he was a proud American, he was one who never forgot where he originated.

"That gave me a sense of self-worth and a strong sense of identity," Vasquez said. "So for me, Hispanic American Heritage Month is a reminder, not only of my culture, but a reminder of what my father gave me.

"My father served in the military during World War II and he was always a very proud and good American and he instilled that in me. "When I was of age, I signed up in the Army. I strongly and firmly believe that had I not spent time in the Army, I wouldn't be a deputy assistant secretary today," he said.

He earned GI Bill benefits, but said he got more than that. "I got the discipline I needed that made me successful in college," Vasquez said. "I also got a better sense of what I didn't want to do in life and a sense of where I wanted to go. I came out of the Army with direction, a sense of vision."

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageThree of the DoD's top Hispanics American leaders attending DoD's Hispanic American Heritage Month observance at the Pentagon are, left to right: Secretary of the Army Louis Caldera; Joseph Wesphal, assistant secretary of the Army for civil works; and Ana Maria Salazar, deputy assistant secretary of defense for drug enforcement policy and support. Photo by Rudi Williams  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageVictor Vasquez Jr. said ethnic observances like Hispanic American Heritage Month help bring a sense of value and self-worth to an entire community and its individual members. Vasquez is DoD's deputy assistant secretary of defense for personnel support, families and education. DoD Photo  
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