FORT LEE, Va. – Sharing the story of his Mexican heritage and the influence of “Gunny Cook” – a Marine Corps brother-in-la
w who demanded discipline as a condition of living in his Oceanside, Calif., home, – Command Sgt. Maj. Jorge Escobedo was the captivating guest speaker of the National Hispanic Heritage Month observance Thursday in the Lee Theater.
Prior to featured remarks by the Combined Arms Support Command CSM, the program opened with a prerecorded Hispanic music video by the 380th Army Band out of Richmond. Master of ceremonies, Lt. Col. Denis Fajardo, 244th Quartermaster Battalion commander, then offered a historical narrative of Hispanic-American service members who have earned Medals of Honor for heroic action while fighting with U.S. forces since World War II.
Col. Jason Affolder, 23rd QM Brigade commander, read the president’s 2020 Hispanic Heritage Month proclamation. After that, a parade of 12 Soldiers took turns stepping up to a center-stage microphone to announce the Hispanic country they hailed from and their years of service.
The audience was then introduced to retired Sgt. 1st Class Juan Santiago, age 81, who served five consecutive tours in Vietnam where he earned two Purple Hearts and seven Air Medals. During his remaining 11 years of military service, he performed duties as a race relations and equal opportunity specialist.
“We are here to celebrate the rich mosaic of people and cultures who work together to build and strengthen our Army and our nation,” Fajardo observed while segueing to the featured speaker. More than half the Soldiers currently serving in the Army are from the Hispanic-American culture, he also noted.
“Like most of the people on stage and many of you, I came from another country to make America my home,” Fajardo shared. “Exactly 27 years ago, this young Cuban started his career right here in the 244th as a 92-Alpha.
“There was a (Hispanic Heritage Month) poster in the dining facility that got my attention (back then). .,.. The information (made me) realize there were zero general officers in the Army of native Cuban origin. My Puerto Rican and Mexican friends made sure I noted how many from (their culture) had made it, but no Cubans. … It sparked something in me and made me think. I thought to myself, ‘I can do this. I’m Cuban and I’m in the Army. I’ll just figure out what the requirements are and do it.’
“Fast forward 27 years later and my greatest accomplishment to this day is the ability to influence and mentor young Soldiers to have the same ideals and confidence to go after anything,” he summarized. “I have come to realize that the people who need to be on the posters are the retired SFC Santiago’s and CSM Escobedo’s of the Army – regular folks dedicated to the service of the country that afforded them freedom. We are here to inspire; that is our purpose.”
Affolder introduced Escobedo, making note of his recent installment at CASCOM in August. “He is a Soldier’s sergeant major,” the colonel said. “His soul was obviously created to be a Soldier. He leads with compassion, understanding and the highest standards. He is visible. His presence is felt all over CASCOM. I am positive his words today will inspire all of us.”
Acknowledging his pride in Hispanic-American Soldiers “who have not hesitated in showing their commitment to this nation,” Escobedo said it is that type of fortitude that brings strength, endurance and lethality to the U.S. Armed Forces today.
Informing the audience that he planned to share his own story, the CSM admitted he’s not an eloquent speaker, but his message “comes from the heart, and I’m truly passionate about it.” Pointing out that he hails from Mexico City, he was rewarded with an appreciative chuckle as he noted his origins would be hard to tell because he lacks an accent.
“I first came to the United States in 1989 … legally … and I could not speak any English, nada. My mother made the decision because I was lacking in discipline and had multiple run-ins with the law. Her wish was for me to build a commitment to education and my future. My mom knew that if I stayed in Mexico, I would ultimately end up in jail.
“So, I came to live with my sister and brother in law (the Marine stationed in Oceanside). … He was also of Hispanic decent and a Desert Storm and Desert Shield combat vet – a fearful figure but committed to excellence and a tremendous role model. I will tell you he truly became my worst nightmare. However, his exceptional example of demanding discipline changed my life forever.
“He motivated me to learn the English language in 6 months. I became a normal student and a highly successful Marine Corps JROTC cadet. I was being considered for both the West Point and U.S. Coast Guard military academies, but I (couldn’t attend) because I was not a U.S. citizen. Gunny’s motivation also pushed me to attend flight school earning a private and instrument license in one year. “
Escobedo enlisted in March 1984. Over a now 26-year career, he accumulated the leadership and field experience of six deployments. Affolder pointed out earlier that he was the first non-11-series (infantry branch) NCO to hold a first sergeant position in an Army Ranger regiment. He is the first Human Resources Branch NCO to serve as CASCOM’s CSM
“I can only say that with every day that goes by, I’m more proud of being part of our great military and a citizen of this nation,” Escobedo confirmed. “As I reflect back on my past, I realize it was more than just Gunny Cook who had such a tremendous influence on my development, commitment and success, I can truly say that (it’s also due to) the opportunity this nation and institution have provided to me and continues to provide to me on a daily basis.
“There’s no better institution than the U.S. Army, an organization committed to its people and to their development. It’s an organization committed to equality and responsible for producing the best leaders and citizens this nation has ever seen. I’m proud to be a Hispanic-American, but I’m more proud of being a Soldier and a citizen of this great nation.”