Distinguished guests and friends, I am honored to be here at your 47th annual National Education Conference. I bring with me the best wishes for a successful conference from our commander in chief, President Bill Clinton, and our secretary of defense, Bill Perry, who will be joining you tomorrow evening.
I would like to begin my remarks this morning by expressing my admiration for a distinguished American -- the founder of the American GI Forum, Dr. Hector P. Garcia. Few Americans have achieved such widespread respect as Dr. Garcia. Presidents and generals call on him for counsel, but perhaps his greatest admiration comes from us, his fellow veterans. He has been a leader in the fight for the rights of Hispanic-Americans and indeed for all veterans.
Dr. Garcia exemplified the great tradition of Hispanic Americans serving their country in and out of uniform. It is a tradition which began with the founding of our country and has continued ever since. It is a tradition of patriotism, selfless service and honor.
Countless Hispanic Americans have served their country on the field of battle and have distinguished themselves as among the most heroic men to ever fight for this nation. On this 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, I would like you to join me in paying tribute to the men who received the Congressional Medal of Honor during that war.
They are Silvestre S. Herrera, of El Paso, Texas, for action in France; Jose M. Lopez, of Mission, Texas, for action in Belgium; Alejandro Renteria Ruiz, of Carlsbad, N.M., for action in Okinawa; Lucian Adams, of Port Arthur, Texas, for action in France; Marcario Garcia, born in Villa de Castano, Mexico, for action in Germany; Harold Gonsalves, of Alameda, Calif., for action in Okinawa; David W. Gonzales, of Pacoima, Calif., for action in the Philippines; Jose P.Martinez, of Taos, N.M., for action in the Aleutians; Manuel Perez Jr., of Oklahoma City, for action in the Philippines; Cleto Rodriquez, of San Marcos, Texas, for action in the Philippines; Jose Valdez, of Governador, N.M., for action in France; Ysmael R. Villegas, of Casa Blanca, Calif., for action in the Philippines.
Gentlemen, we salute you and the other World War II veterans and families who are with us today. America cannot pay you and those who made the supreme sacrifice and who are with us in spirit the debt we owe you for preserving our freedom. Ladies and gentlemen, would you please stand and join me in applauding our
Behind each hero is a valiant story. Listen to the heroics of two brave men who are no longer with us.
One setting was the murky Philippine jungle and one of the brutal battles of the Pacific war. It was March of 1945, and the increasingly desperate Japanese army was fighting ferociously for every square foot of territory.
Staff Sgt. Ysmael R. Villegas was squad leader of Company F, 127th Infantry of the 32nd Infantry Division, when his unit, in a forward position on Villa Verde Trail, clashed with the enemy who were strongly entrenched in connected caves and foxholes on commanding ground. He moved boldly from man to man in the face of bursting grenades and demolition charges, through heavy machine- gun and rifle fire to bolster the spirit of his comrades. Inspired by his gallantry, his men pressed forward to the crest of the hill. Numerous enemy riflemen, refusing to flee, continued firing from their foxholes. Staff Sgt. Villegas, with complete disregard for his own safety and with bullets kicking up the dirt at this feet, charged the enemy position and fired into the foxhole at point blank range, killing the Japanese soldier inside. He rushed to a second foxhole while bullets missed him by inches and killed one more of the enemy. In rapid succession he charged at a third, a fourth, and a fifth foxhole, each time
destroying the enemy within. The fire against him increased in intensity, but he pressed onward to attack a sixth position. As he neared his goal, he was hit and killed by enemy fire.
Through his heroism and indomitable fighting spirit, Staff Sgt. Villegas, at the cost of his life, inspired his men to a determined attack in which they swept the enemy from the field.
The second story represents innumerable acts of bravery by Hispanic Americans, some recorded for history and some lost to us.
Fighting the Germans on their own soil, Staff Sgt. Marcario Garcia and his company were pinned down by intense machine gun fire near Grosshau. As acting squad leader of Company B, 22nd Infantry, Sgt. Garcia showed uncommon bravery even for those heroic times. Although painfully wounded, he refused evacuation and crawled forward under enemy fire, through meager cover and destroyed the enemy gun that was pinning down his men. He rejoined his company, only to storm another machine gun site, killing three more of the enemy and capturing four. Sgt. Garcia fought on with his unit until the objective was taken and only then did he accept medical care.
I could go on and on recounting the brave actions of not only those who have won the Medal of Honor, but those too innumerable to mention, many of whom are here today, who wrote their heroism on the field of battle in Hispanic blood -- not only during World War II, which we commemorate, but in all of America s wars.
It is inspiring and humbling for me to be asked to join you here today. Like you, I am a member of an ethnic minority, and, like you, I am a veteran of the armed forces. I served in peace and war, and share with you the dual experiences of serving our country and, at times, facing discrimination. My response, like yours, has always been to do my duty to the best of my ability and to insist that all Americans be treated with dignity and respect.
On this point, this administration, of which I am a part, is committed to continuing the fight against intolerance and bigotry -- and to ensure that minorities are represented fairly in our government -- including our armed services. This commitment is reflected in President Clinton s appointment of the most diverse administration and Department of Defense leadership in history.
Like President Clinton, Secretary Perry has made equal opportunity a personal commitment. When he took office, he issued a clear and forceful memorandum on equal opportunity. It was not something that was routinely prepared by staff and signed by him. It reflected his personal commitment and views, emphasizing those elements which are important to him. He wrote:
Our nation s security and prosperity depend on our ability to develop and employ the talents of our diverse population. Equal opportunity is not just the right thing to do, it is military and economic necessity. ... Therefore, I will not tolerate discrimination or harassment of or by any Department of Defense employee.
These are not just words that sound good. They are words that have been put into actions. Let me outline five of these actions.
First, Secretary Perry re-established the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Equal Opportunity as a focal point for the department s military and civilian equal opportunity programs. This office had been abolished in the 1980s under another administration.
Second, he restructured and upgraded the Defense Equal Opportunity Council, which advises him on equal opportunity matters. The council is now chaired by the deputy secretary of defense and includes the secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the four under secretaries of defense and the department s other top officials. The council meets every quarter to review the department s progress in meeting established goals; to prescribe new goals and standards; and to ensure accountability for programs to implement approved policies.
Third, he required a vigorous and sustained effort to improve the representation of women, minorities, and people with disabilities among the department s civilian managers.
Fourth, he required all of the department s personnel to receive equal opportunity training periodically, including civilian and military leaders when they are advanced in the senior executive and general and flag officer ranks.
And fifth, he directed an officer pipeline study to determine what actions are required to achieve our goal of an officer corps in each of our services that is representative of our society as a whole.
I think it is fair to say that Hispanic Americans have been making tremendous progress in our armed forces. For example, the percentage of officers and higher level noncommissioned officers who are Hispanic American has increased substantially over the last 15 years.
The number of Hispanic active duty officers has more than doubled since 1980, from less than 3,000 to about 6,000 today -- even though the overall active force has shrunk by one-third over the same period. Perhaps more importantly, Hispanics are gaining in the senior grades. Over that same period, the number of Hispanic colonels has increased by over 50 percent. And there are more than twice as many Hispanic general and flag officers than in 1980, even though the total number of generals and admirals has shrunk by nearly 25 percent over the same period.
Among the enlisted ranks, it is the same story. the top three noncommissioned officer grades, E-7, E-8, and E-9, all showed substantial increases in Hispanic representation. Increases in these grades range from 50 to 100 percent since 1980.
What do all those numbers mean? Two things: First, Hispanic service members continue to prove themselves to be high quality leaders, but that has always been the case.
Second, these numbers tell us there is much more work to be done and that progress will not come without strong equal opportunity programs. Our goal is to have Hispanic representation throughout the rank structure that is equal to Hispanic representation in American society. That is 12 percent, according to demographic projections for the year 2000.
This won t occur overnight because we grow our force from the bottom, but we have a plan of action, with milestones, that will begin to move us aggressively and affirmatively toward our target. We look forward to ... removing artificial barriers.
At the Department of Defense, of course, everything we do -- including equal opportunity programs -- is done to increase the strength and readiness of our military force. and I want to give you a status report on how we are doing. Frankly, our personnel readiness is excellent.
This is due, in large part, to the high quality of our service members and because our military leaders have handled the post-Cold War drawdown skillfully. The quality of our force is actually higher today than it was at the beginning of the drawdown. We defied predictions that the best would leave the service and that diversity would suffer from cutbacks, leaving a hollow, less representative military.
The fact is that the quality, diversity and readiness of our forces today is unprecedented -- the best we ve ever had.
The downsizing of the military is nearly complete, and our task now turns to stabilizing the force. For the 1.5 million men and women on active duty, this administration has established and funded an extraordinary program to support them and their families.
First, President Clinton and Secretary Perry have allocated $7.7 billion to fund the maximum pay raise for military personnel allowed by law through the end of the decade.
Additionally, Secretary Perry has increased funding by $2.7 billion over the next five years to improve military housing, expand child care, supplement the income of service members assigned to high-cost areas in the United States, reduce the out- of-pocket costs for military personnel who live in civilian housing, improve MWR [morale, welfare and recreation] services and provide other benefits for military members and their families. This initiative is not only a matter of basic fairness to the people who defend our nation; it will improve the readiness and effectiveness of our forces.
One of our greatest challenges in the post-Cold War world is to maintain our outstanding record in recruiting high quality men and women for the military. This is an area in which we need your help.
Our surveys show that because of all the publicity about the drawdown, a lot of young people think the military isn't hiring. They don t realize that we now need over 200,000 recruits each year just for the active force. Perhaps more troubling, the same survey shows that these kids have a declining interest in military service.
That s where you can help. Young men and women need to hear from veterans like you. They need to be told about the rewards of service and the satisfaction that comes from defending freedom. I respectfully request and challenge each of you commit yourself to telling your story to the young people around you, because you are more influential than all the television advertising we could buy.
In closing, I would like to salute you and all veterans. On the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, it is fitting that we pay tribute to the generation which saved the world from fascism. But there are also great heroes in this room from Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf and other conflicts. And out in the field, right now, there are young Hispanics serving their country with dedication, ready to carry on the proud tradition you have passed to them.
So on behalf of the Department of Defense, I thank each veteran with deep gratitude for the freedom which you defended and which we all enjoy.
God bless you, God bless the American GI Forum, and God bless America.
Published for internal information use by the American Forces Information Service, a field activity of the Office of the Assistant to the 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.