By Cathy Segal, TACOMSeptember 28, 2016
DETROIT -- In 1991, Jose A. Velazquez Jr. was a 19-year-old trying to escape the hopelessness of the projects north of Boston. He had failed out of community college and was working in a factory pressing suits. But he had dreams and goals beyond the factory.
His mother wanted him to be "a somebody," and he saw an opportunity to make something of himself in the Army. So he did. He joined the Army as a broadcaster in 1991 and today he is the Sergeant Major of Army Public Affairs, where he advises the Chief of Army Public Affairs on all enlisted matters affecting the career field.
Velazquez shared his story Sept. 21, speaking for Hispanic Heritage Month to employees from TACOM Life Cycle Management Command and the Detroit Arsenal. He expressed hope that people in the audience would recognize parallels with their own life stories.
"Many of us who come from other places or whose parents came from other places can indeed rise and reach the American dream," he said.
In the early 1960s, before he was born, Velazquez's parents moved to the U.S. from Puerto Rico. Like many other immigrants, they came here for opportunity -- to find work in factories, in fields, wherever unskilled labor was needed. He too went to work in a factory. It was there that a coworker one day asked him what he wanted to do with his life.
"I told him I had an interest in working in radio and television," Velazquez remembered. "But without a degree, there was no way I was going to get there."
When the coworker told him that he had seen someone appear on TV when he was serving in the military in Germany in the early '80s, Velazquez was nonplussed.
"That sounded very strange to me," Velazquez explained. "All I knew about the Army was tents and people screaming at you, but it piqued my interest enough to go down and speak to the recruiter, and he told me, indeed, that was a field I could get into."
Velazquez asked if he would get paid from day one. The recruiter told him he would, and Velazquez told him to sign him up. "And I was gone," he remembered. So began his Army career. His rise through the ranks was not necessarily easy, nor was it difficult.
"It was simply a matter of my drive and my desire," he said. "That's what's terrific about the Army. It allows you to go as far as you choose to go, and as far as your drive and your skills will allow you to go. It's the perfect fair environment for you to make of yourself whatever you choose."
Looking back on his career today, he doesn't think being Hispanic in the Army served as either an advantage or a disadvantage. Rather, the values instilled him -- the loyalty and devotion to community and family, the high regard for fairness and patriotism that he grew up with -- were in keeping with the Army values.
"If anything, it was a great benefit," he said. "I was a really patriotic kid and I grew up in an environment where, although it was largely Hispanic, there was a lot of patriotism and love of country for the opportunities that the United States gives to folks who come here from other countries."
Hispanics come to the U.S. driven by the desire to do well, Velazquez explained, to succeed and to be included in their communities.
"Those folks that come from other countries, in particular the Latin countries, come here and many of their children desire to serve, to give back as a form of thanks to a country that gave their families an opportunity," he said.
According to Velazquez, the number of Hispanic Soldiers in the Army has been on the rise since 1985, but it is still lower than the percentage of Hispanics in the U.S. population.
"The Army is 11 percent Hispanic compared to 17 percent of the population," he said. "We still have some work to do to mirror our civilian world, but it's surely better than 1985 [when] we were only at 3 percent, so we've grown significantly since then."
In his remarks, sergeant major offered advice to Hispanic-American Soldiers and civilians who are just starting their careers in the Army today, encouraging them to take advantage of the Army's educational opportunities and training.
"Always search for those hard jobs that are going to get [you] promoted and are going to give [you] the opportunity to succeed," he said.
In addition to sharing his own story, Velazquez told the Hispanic Heritage Month audience about several contributions Hispanics have made to the Army. One such contribution was made by Sgt. 1st Class Gregory A. Rodriguez from Weidman, Michigan.
According to Velazquez, Rodriguez died during an intense small-arms firefight in Afghanistan, leaving behind a wife and three children, "who carry his memory and courage in their hearts." Velazquez called him a great American and "a product of the rich tapestry of his Hispanic heritage."
"'Rod,' as his friends called him, was a die-hard Red Wings fan," Velazquez said. "He'd mess with his Army buddies from other states and wonder how anyone could root for another team. That was Rod. He chose to stand and be counted as one of the men and women who decided to protect our country and our way of life."
Velazquez also talked about "The Borinqueneers," a Puerto Rican unit of the Army that was active from 1899 to 1956. In April 2016, the unit was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. The unit was the first Hispanic unit and the sole unit from the Korean War to receive the medal. It is regarded as one of the most highly decorated units in the history of the U.S. military.
Velazquez also discussed the results of a review of military records directed by Congress. The review was meant to ensure that acts of heroism deserving of the Medal of Honor were not overlooked or rejected because of prejudice or discrimination.
Following the years-long review of thousands of records, 17 Hispanic Army veterans were awarded our nation's highest award for valor in 2014 in the largest Medal of Honor ceremony in history.
Opinions may differ on whether observances like Hispanic Heritage Month unite or divide the Army, Velazquez said, but he believes they are necessary to allow people "to pause, reflect and celebrate the diversity of people and cultures that continue to build and strengthen our Army and our nation."
"We celebrate our differences because our differences always make us who we are," he said. "That's what makes us uniquely American. As a Hispanic American I can stand next to an American of European descent, of African descent, of Middle Eastern or Asian descent -- we're still all Americans."
Velazquez said he was honored that day to share his experiences as a Hispanic-American service member. He said that of all his accomplishments the one that today remains the most important to him was simply making his mom proud.
"She worked so hard to ensure that I would become a somebody," he said. "For her, that meant somebody who got an education and got a profession. So I did both."
His mom passed away in 1997.
"But prior to her passing away I was very proud to share my degree with her, to bring it home," he said. "She held it in her hands and said, "You're a somebody now."