Defense Issues: Volume 12, Number 45-- DoD Continues Fight Against Discrimination
Distinguished guests, members of the American GI Forum and friends, I am honored to be here at your 49th annual National Education Conference. I bring with me best wishes for a successful conference from our commander in chief, President Bill Clinton, and our secretary of defense, William Cohen. ...
Tonight I want to talk about some big issues of social policy, about our efforts to provide equal opportunity and about our children. But before I do, I want to acknowledge that everything we do in those areas, we do in the shadow of the late Dr. Hector Perez Garcia, the founder of the American GI Forum.
Dr. Garcia's life and work is a tribute to the American spirit. His patriotism and dedication to the Hispanic community are legendary. While Dr. Garcia is no longer with us physically, he is with us in spirit, and we know that his legacy will endure. Through the good works of the American GI Forum, his vision will continue to benefit our country for many, many years to come. I know we will all do our best to carry on his legacy of pride, patriotism and opportunity for all.
It is in this spirit that this administration has been working over the past 4 1/2 years to pursue a program of equal opportunity and diversity. As you know, in pursuit of that goal, this year President Clinton has begun what he calls a "National Conversation About Race." I'd like to talk for a moment about what he is seeking to accomplish.
It will be a year-long effort to present to the nation his vision of a stronger, more just and more united American community -- one offering opportunity and fairness for all Americans. The president's initiative combines constructive dialogue, study and action. It will examine the current state of race relations and our common future and look at the laws and policies that can help to ensure that we remain "One America." It will enlist individuals, communities, businesses and government at all levels in an effort to understand our differences while appreciating the values that unite us.
Growing up in the South, the president saw for himself the great harm caused by racial discrimination and the difference that can be achieved by changing both policies and attitudes. That long-standing, deeply personal commitment has led him to make this initiative one of his major second-term priorities. He knows that America can reach its full potential only by enlisting the full energies of all our people and giving all our citizens, of every background, the chance to make the most of their own God-given talents.
The president's initiative on race will five central goals:
q To articulate the president's vision of racial reconciliation and a just, unified America;
q To help educate the nation about the facts surrounding the issue of race;
q To promote a constructive dialogue, to confront and work through the difficult and controversial issues surrounding race;
q To recruit and encourage leadership at all levels to help bridge racial divides; and
q To find, develop and implement solutions in critical areas such as education, economic opportunity, housing, health care, crime and the administration of justice for individuals, communities, corporations and government at all levels.
The effort itself will consist of five elements.
First, there is a presidential advisory board. This small, diverse group of advisers will assist the president in outreach efforts and consultations with experts.
Second, there will be significant presidential events and actions throughout the year, including town hall meetings in different regions of the country, meetings with the advisory board and other events that will enable the president to carry out his goals for the initiative.
Third, the effort will include outreach to community leaders, religious leaders, state and local elected officials, members of Congress, business leaders and individuals, encouraging them to become involved in reconciliation and community-building projects.
Fourth, the president will issue a report to the American people. It will present his vision of "One America," including an illustration and assessment of the growing diversity of our nation and solutions that enable individuals, communities, businesses, organizations and government to address difficult issues and build on our best possibilities.
The initiative will, if successful, help educate Americans about the facts surrounding issues of race, promote a dialogue in every community of the land to confront and work through these issues, recruit and encourage leadership at all levels to help breach racial divides, and find, develop and recommend how to implement concrete solutions to our problems -- solutions that will involve all of us in government, business, communities and as individual citizens.
In the Department of Defense, our goal is to continue to lead America in providing true equal opportunity. We are committed to the programs which have brought unparalleled opportunity to all members of our armed forces. From our commander in chief on down, our policy has been firm and consistent: Equal opportunity and affirmative action are necessary to promote the diversity that is so important to an effective military force.
Let me give you an example. When we began the process of downsizing after winning the Cold War, many feared that diversity would suffer, and there were legitimate reasons for concern. If we had not focused on maintaining the diversity that is so important to the smooth functioning of our military, it might have been lost in the process. But our leadership, military and civilian, made a strong commitment to ensuring that the gains which minorities and women had achieved were not sacrificed. And as evidence of their success, today's armed forces -- up and down the ranks -- is the most diverse in history. In fact, it remains the most integrated major institution in American life.
Now, as we all know, dealing with issues of discrimination has sometimes caused the military some bad press. But that just goes with the territory -- and it will not stop us from dealing with these issues head on and insisting that every service member is afforded the opportunity and respect he has earned by volunteering to wear the nation's uniform.
And few groups have worn that uniform with as much distinction as Hispanic Americans. We all know of the 37 Americans of Hispanic decent who have received our nation's highest award for bravery and valor, the Medal of Honor. Tonight, I would like to tell a brief story which I think illustrates the true courage and patriotism of Hispanic-American service members. As a young Asian-American growing up in Hawaii, I often heard the story of Japanese Americans who, despite vicious discrimination and internment by their own government, volunteered to fight during World War II and became one of the most decorated units in history. The story I am about to tell about a group of Hispanic-Americans reminds me a great deal
of those events, both about rising above intolerance and remaining faithful to the values of duty, honor and country.
This story features Joe Gomez, Peter Masias, Tony Pompa, Johnny Munos, Frank Sandoval, William Sandoval, Joseph Sandoval and Clario Soliz. They were born of Mexican immigrant parents in the yards where the Rock Island Railroad used to repair its locomotives in Silvis, Ill.
The townspeople of Silvis vehemently complained about the Mexicans who were allegedly living tax-free in old boxcars and who had built a church to worship their God by putting two of the boxcars together. As a result of the complaints, these Mexican residents were forced to move to Second St. on the west end of town. Now, Second St. was a long dirt road out of the sight and mind of the complainers, where an incredible example of duty, honor, country, would soon be compiled.
The young Hispanic men from Second St., brought up by their parents to fight for a country which offered a better life, would go to war in numbers unmatched by any other street in America. The 22 families on Second St. sent 87 young men into war. Fifty-seven went to World War II and Korea. The two Sandoval families sent 13 -- seven from one family and six from the other. No other street in America had families who paid so dearly for their country.
Yet the city fathers of Silvis, Ill., prohibited those who returned from the war from joining the local VFW [Veterans of Foreign Wars] post because they were Hispanic. The city fathers also refused to pave rocky and dusty Second St. So when the bodies came home from the war, the hearses often bogged down in mud and their caskets had to be unloaded and carried the final blocks to the homes of the bereaved families.
This was the fate of the eight young Hispanic men whose names I called out earlier. Eight young men, who in their youth, strength, love, loyalty and belief in God and family gave all that mortals can give. They died unquestioning, uncomplaining, with faith in their hearts and on their lips the hope that we would go – as we did -- on to victory.
Finally, after a sometimes bitter struggle, the Hispanic and white residents of Silvis embraced and joined hands. On "Billy Goat Hill," where the kids of Second St. used to play, they built a park with a historical monument to the eight young heroes who had died. Second St., which sent 87 young, brave Hispanic men to war and lost eight, was proudly named "Hero Street USA."
All Americans owe a special debt of gratitude to Hispanic Americans, who, when the chips are down, defend America with their very lives.
Heroes like those young Americans from Silvis are the best possible role models for young people. I commend the American GI Forum for this year's theme, "Hispanic Heroes: Educating Tomorrow's Work Force." Our Hispanic veterans serve not only as excellent role models, but as real-world teachers to the next generation.
In the Department of Defense, we have focused significant resources on developing the talents and skills of young people. Let me give you a few examples.
The Junior ROTC has been a salvation for many young people, particularly in the inner cities. Exposed to strong leaders who are imbued with the military values of discipline and achievement, these kids are given the opportunity to earn respect and to begin to respect themselves, often for the first time.
We also sponsor a program in Texas called the Seaborne Conservation Corps. It is a joint venture of the Navy and Americorps that takes troubled kids, makes them productive, contributing members of our society. They live on a ship, learn the value of hard work and cooperation, and are able to turn their lives around.
When they enter, they're all high school dropouts. Of those that make it through, and not all of them do, because it's a tough program, most of them go on to complete their degrees, some go to college and many join the military. And not surprisingly, the program is led by veterans, people who learned the right values from their service.
We also have a program called Troops to Teachers, which trains people leaving the military to be teachers and places them in schools across America. Already, several thousand veterans have gone to work in some of the toughest classrooms in America -- providing role models to troubled kids and making a real difference in their lives.
We have many, many other youth programs, and they are all built upon the same principle. That is, "We don't have a person to waste." Like it or not, America's youth, from all ethnic backgrounds, will be the citizens, voters, taxpayers and parents of tomorrow. If we don't use everything we've got -- and that includes us veterans -- to bring these kids up right, then nothing else we do will matter.
That is why organizations like American GI Forum are so important. You provide education and inspiration to America's young people. I want to commend each of you for the outstanding work you have done over the years and pledge my support, and the support of the Defense Department, to your future efforts.
Thank you very much for listening this evening. My congratulations for your work, God bless you, and God bless America.
Published for internal information use by the American Forces Information Service, a field activity of the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs), Washington, D.C. Parenthetical entries are speaker/author notes; bracketed entries are editorial notes. This material is in the public domain and may be reprinted without permission. Defense Issues is available on the Internet via the World Wide Web at http://www.defenselink.mil/speeches/index.html.