NATICK, Mass. -- On Jul. 3, 1863, the third and last day of the Battle of Gettysburg, Cpl. Joseph De Castro bore the flag of Massachusetts for Company I, 19th Massachusetts Infantry, part of the III Corps, 3rd Brigade of the U.S. Army. During the battle, De Castro attached a Confederate flag bearer from the 19th Virginia Infantry with the staff of his own flag and seized the 19th Virginia's colors, handing the prize to Gen. Alexander S. Webb.
For his actions on the battlefield, De Castro was awarded the Medal of Honor on Dec. 1, 1864; becoming the first Hispanic-American awarded the United States' highest military decoration for valor in combat. He paved the way for 40 Hispanic-Americans who have received the Medal of Honor. At the Natick Soldier Systems Center (NSSC), the street in front of the installation's headquarters is named in his honor.
NSSC soldiers and civilians celebrated National Hispanic Heritage Month with an observance on Oct. 9. Massachusetts is home to approximately a quarter of a million veterans and is the only state to dedicate a program of service to its eligible veteran population with a veterans' service officer in every city and town. At the helm is the Honorable Francisco Ureña, Secretary of Massachusetts Department of Veterans' Services, who participated in the event as guest speaker.
"Hispanics are wide flung across the United States and reflect a wealth of cultural diversity," said Ureña. "Today we celebrate the remarkable achievements of Hispanic Americans in and around our country, including in our military. This diversity makes us stronger; diversity strengthens teams; diversity is the focus of strength.
"All of you, no matter where you are from, or your heritage, your diversity as a veteran is a strength upon the focus of community," continued Ureña. "Your leadership, no matter the rank you attain, is something that will be necessary in the communities you choose to work and call home. And while there are a lot of things that continue to divide us as a society, whether it's politics or opinions, in Massachusetts we focus on strengthening and empowering our veterans and I'm extremely proud of the tone we set."
Ureña, whose family immigrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic when he was four years old, joined the U.S. Marine Corps after graduating from high school. Over the course of eight years of service, his duties included diplomatic security with the Department of State at American embassies in Damascus, Syria and Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. The recipient of a Purple Heart for injuries sustained during Operation Iraqi Freedom, Ureña spoke of his pride for his heritage and service to his newfound nation.
"I am proud of my heritage and I am truly proud of being an American," said Ureña. "I have travelled across this country and around the state and so many things are special. We have a long-standing history in America of things that are much bigger than we are…things that you protect every day. For those of you who have deployed you know what I am talking about; our way of life is much different from any place we have travelled."
The secretary noted that there are two types of Soldiers: those who have joined because somebody in their family has served in the military and those who are serving for the very first time in their family, as was his case, and shared his appreciation for the contributions of Hispanic Americans including those in the military.
"Your responsibility is ever so important," Ureña said. "The example you continue to set is one that many people look up to. There is a lot of trust and responsibility in today's military. Continue to live your role to the very best of your ability. Next month we celebrate Veterans Day, a time when we celebrate people like you who have worn that uniform with pride."
Lt. Col. Andrew Henderson, U.S. Army Garrison Natick commander, thanked the secretary for his service and participating in the ceremony and reflected on Hispanic American soldiers of the past, including De Castro, as well as those that have made a personal impact on his own military experience.
"Staff Sgt. Albert Huerta, my gunner in Iraq, was a bear of a man with a heart of gold," said Henderson. "He always made sure the truck was stocked with soccer balls and stuffed animals in addition to ammo and MREs. He was just as skilled at throwing toys to kids as he was throwing grenades at insurgents. He taught me the value of asking for help and of taking care of each other."
Huerta attempted to take his own life 10 years ago, a time when mental health was stigmatized, but he has recovered and continues to serve today, by being a positive role model and providing inspiration to an untold number of troops.
"Lt. Col. Esther Marcella and I served together approximately 15 years ago and hadn't seen each other since 2005," continued Henderson. "She saw me stranded at an airport in Arizona and when she could have easily walked by, she remembered me and took me in, helping me to get on a flight home."
Many soldiers can share similar experiences, as more than 142 thousand Hispanic Americans account for more than 14 percent of the Army's Total Force.
Henderson concluded, "We appreciate the contributions of Hispanic American soldiers, civilians, and family members who have strengthened our Army team and live by our core values of loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage."