Army civilian, veteran promotes diversity by sharing traditions, experiences
May 31, 2012
FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- A man who made tracks leading some of the first troops on Afghanistan's battlefield in 2001 continues his service as an Army civilian -- this time helping to ensure Soldiers and Families enjoy their time at Fort Drum.
Ken Lopez, who serves as chief of community recreation for Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation, arrived at Fort Drum in 1996 to serve as 1st Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment's command sergeant major before becoming 2nd Brigade's senior enlisted adviser. The 9/11 attacks occurred a short time after Lopez became 10th Mountain Division's senior enlisted leader.
"I went to Bosnia with 2nd Brigade and had just gotten back, had the change of responsibility and then 9/11 happened; it was back to back," he said.
At the time, there were only two brigades located at Fort Drum. Many of the division's Soldiers were stationed in Sinai, Egypt, Lopez explained.
"We took (the troops) we had left to Uzbekistan for combat operations (before) moving into Afghanistan," he recalled. "We kicked out 1-87 (Infantry) first, and then (division) followed to Uzbekistan.
"We pushed in 1-87 Infantry with the Special Forces into Afghanistan to get a foothold; then we went in with the division cell," Lopez continued. "We immediately started conducting combat operations in the Shah-e-kot Valley (in Afghanistan)."
Although Lopez had planned to retire, he said he put his plans on hold because of 9/11.
Shortly after Lopez retired on Dec. 31, 2002, he began working for FMWR. Four years ago, he took on his current position. As chief of community recreation, he is in charge of several post facilities, including McEwen Library, Monti Physical Fitness Center and Magrath Sports Complex, Parks and Recreation, the Auto Craft Center and Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers.
"I'm still connected to the Soldiers because I'm a DoD civilian," Lopez noted. "I still serve, but in a different capacity."
"I know what Soldiers go through during their career, but I understand what it means to be a dependent too," he explained. "I was born at Tripler Army (Medical Center, in Honolulu) and raised on military installations."
He not only was a military child and served on active duty, but he also was a part of a dual-military Family. His wife, Mildred Lopez, served in the Army for four years.
"I've lived in government quarters and was raised on a military installation," Lopez added. "That helps (me relate to Soldiers and Families) a lot."
New roots, old traditions
Fort Drum is almost a world away from the place Lopez calls home. Growing up in the sunshine and surrounded by beaches on Oahu, Hawaii, Lopez and his three older brothers decided to follow in their father's footsteps.
Gilbert C. Lopez Sr. served 24 years as an Army infantryman. All four Lopez boys served in their father's footsteps. The five veterans contributed more than 100 years of service to the Army.
"My father was in the military, so we traveled (around) the world … and then went back to Hawaii," Lopez said. "He went to Vietnam three times."
"I joined because of tradition, and I grew up in the military life," he continued.
Lopez enlisted in the Army at 17.
"I actually had to get Dad's and Mom's signatures (to enlist). I had just graduated, and I wanted to go and make something of myself, so I joined the military," he explained.
Originally, Lopez envisioned himself retiring in Hawaii, but after more than 27 years of service, he decided to stay in the North Country.
When his Family arrived here 16 years ago, his two youngest children were in 4th and 7th grades. "Staying here after retiring was one of the best decisions we ever made," he said. "This state has the best education system that I've seen in all my travels. My wife told me when we were heading up north that we'd (stay) two years.
"After the first year, seeing the education system and the North Country people, they just welcomed us with open arms," Lopez added. "We've been here about 16 years, and (it) has been very good raising a Family."
Hawaii has a culturally diverse population, Lopez said, adding that his father is a fourth-generation Hawaiian. In addition to native Hawaiian, he also is of Portuguese and Japanese descent.
Being in tune with his heritage played an important role in his military service and continues to now in his role as an Army civilian, he said.
Lopez also serves with the Equal Employment Opportunity's Special Emphasis Program representing Asian-Pacific Americans.
"I try to educate the community about the history of the Hawaiian Islands, our 50th state," he said. "A lot of people aren't aware that we had a kingdom. It's not in (a lot of) history books that we had a king and a queen."
Before King Kamehameha I, who united the eight Hawaiian Islands, each island had its own king and queen, Lopez said.
He also informs the community about some little-known facts involving the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian Islands. In 1893, the Kingdom of Hawaii was illegally overthrown by the United States, Lopez explained. In 1993, President Bill Clinton signed the "Apology Bill," officially recognizing the wrongdoing committed against Hawaii.
Hawaiian politicians also are pushing for the Akaka Bill, named after Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii), who served 13 years in the House of Representatives and 22 years in the U.S. Senate, Lopez added.
"The Akaka Bill is requesting that the United States recognize Hawaiians as natives indigenous to the United States -- similar to how the American Indians and Alaskan Natives are recognized," he said. "We just want to be recognized as indigenous people so we have a voice to Congress and the Senate and an identity."
Lopez also helped organize the Asian American / Pacific Islander Heritage Month observance on post last week.
"The military is made up of different cultures and people from all walks of life. That's why I'm glad EO had special observance days to make the community aware of other cultures in both the military and civilian workforces," he said. "In the civilian workforce especially, (sometimes) people have a tendency to not put down their ethnicity because they're afraid that they could be overlooked due to stereotypes.
"We want people to understand that being different is OK. It's OK to be proud of your nationality."