“I believe that the 21st century is the bringing of the rising tide of Hispanic heritage. Latinos are transforming America much like previous generations did. We will add an enduring culture and tradition to the fabric of this nation. We will help lift it, tilt it, shape it and will do it through our values of family, of work ethic, and all that our family taught us.” Honorable Dr. Joseph W. Westphal, Under Secretary, U.S. Army
This month we celebrate the Independence Day of the United States, and during this time it is good to remember those who have given lives of service, enduring great hardship and years of training and sacrifice as members of the military. I want to especially recognize women in the armed forces, as they have had the most difficult road to travel in becoming soldiers and sustaining careers in this predominantly male organization. They have served with honor and willingly sacrificed time, family life, safety, peace of mind, physical health and so much more in order to serve their country.
The U.S. military only began to accept women in its ranks in the early 20th century, and very few Hispanic women joined at first. Traditional Hispanic cultural values discouraged women from traveling any distance from or working outside the home. These prohibitions began to change during World War II, when the nation needed the contributions of all of its citizens. During WWII the Army was looking for bilingual Hispanic women to fill assignments in fields such as cryptology, communications and interpretation. The WAC, Women’s Army Corp began avidly recruiting and many Latinas answered this call to service.
Sergeant Mary Castro, the first Hispanic woman from San Antonio, TX, to join the WAC, signed up to help bring home seven men in her family who were fighting in the Southwest Pacific. Latinas also served as nurses throughout the war: Lieutenant Maria Garcia served as a flight nurse with the Army Nurse Corps in the China-Burma-India Theater of Operations, and received an Air Medal and two Bronze Stars for her heroic actions. When large numbers of Puerto Rican troops were inducted into the Army in 1944, the Army Nurse Corps decided to actively recruit Puerto Rican nurses so that Army hospitals would not have to deal with the language barrier.
Latinas also served in the Naval Women’s Reserve, known as the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), during World War II. Maria Menefee, of Guadalajara, Mexico, joined the WAVES in 1944 and served faithfully until she left the military and eventually married. At the end of the war many women chose to do the same, and start families, as well as use their experiences in service to gain better jobs.
When the Korean War began many of these same women began to re-enlist, encouraging friends and family as well– though there were many hardships, their own successful careers in service were the best advertisement to join up. Lieutenant Colonel Nilda Carrulas Cedero Fuertes of Toa Baja, Puerto Rico, joined the Army Nurse Corps in 1953, serving on active duty until 1964—she became part of the Reserves until 1990. Her most memorable experience in the military was teaching the latest modern nursing techniques to Nicaraguan Army nurses while on temporary duty (TDY) in Nicaragua for six months. Time after time Latinas proved that they could be resourceful, brave and intelligent soldiers, serving with honor.
Capt. Kathlene Contres, commandant of the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute, which is the Defense Department's center of excellence for equal opportunity and human relations training, is the Navy's highest-ranking Hispanic woman officer. She was responsible for maintaining the $24 million compound of the Institute and training more than 2,500 students annually from military bases around the world. Contres, even after her retirement with 30 years of active service, still advocates for more Hispanic women in the military and stresses the possibilities for advancement and self-improvement that the Navy offers.
Major-General Angela Salinas, a Spanish and Mexican descendant from original civilian settlers in Texas, was a college sophomore when she walked into the post office one day to mail a letter– a Marine Corp recruiter asked her if she’d like to join up, she couldn’t think of any good reason not to. Salinas would go on to become the first woman to hold multiple high-level positions in the Corps. She made Marine history again serving as the first woman to lead either of the Corps' two boot camps. She has won numerous awards and served her country in many different capacities and was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General; in 2013, she retired after 39 years of military service as the highest ranking female in the USMC.
Lt. Col. Marcela G. Alvarado, the first in her family to graduate from college. Commissioned as a military intelligence officer in 1987, Alvarado has been a platoon leader, executive officer, company commander and an ROTC instructor, and has held various staff-level posts. She recently served as the executive officer for the Army's assistant deputy chief of staff for intelligence, where she became a key member of the Abu Ghraib prison abuse investigation team.
Master Sergeant Morayma M. Rodriguez of the U.S. Marine Corp joined up in 1989 out of Eagle Pass, TX, after growing up watching her older brother Camilo marching in his uniform for the military academy in Mexico (ROTC). “To me it was a sense of pride and a way of giving back to the country we had migrated to back in 1979. It was my contribution as an American.” After two deployments to Iraq, Rodriguez learned to appreciate life, acquired an extended family, developed leadership skills and the opportunity to work with Marines from different cultures, background and beliefs. “Accepting that the Marine Corps is a traditional male service I had to grow a thick skin. I have excelled because I didn’t allow anyone to tell me what I could or couldn’t do, I just did it. Action speaks louder than words,” she says.
Col. Madeline Lopez has distinguished herself as Commander of Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) Warner Robins at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia. Her father, a Vietnam veteran who served in the Army for 20 years, earned a Purple Heart for his service in Korea, contributed in large part on her choice of career. “His enormous patriotism and selfless sacrifice inspired me to also want to serve my country,” she says. A believer in being dedicated to what you do and a hard worker, Lopez has helped Latinas believe in themselves and in their ability to achieve their career goals. “Latinas are already making headlines as strong, dedicated leaders in many fronts,” she says. “I believe Latinas will continue to excel as influential leaders and will also be great role models to women from all backgrounds.”
Each of these Latinas have served with honor, and been recognized by their government and by Latin organizations in the U.S. and abroad, to become an inspiration to young women who may be considering their career path. Nobody said military life is easy, however, the hard work you do will earn you many rewards, more refined job skills, better education and important self-discipline that will serve you through all phases of your life. Hispanic women have a strong and vibrant history of service in the U.S. Military and I encourage any young woman who has not yet chosen a career path to look into the various branches of service to see how they can change their lives and serve their country and bring honor to themselves and to their families.