The West Point Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Equal Opportunity commemorated National Hispanic Heritage Month with an observance dinner Oct. 8 at the West Point Club’s Grand Ballroom.
More than 60 cadets came to the event that featured guest keynote speaker Andrew W. Vale, who currently serves as vice president of corporate security for the Penske Corporation, but he previously spent 32 years working in the federal government, the last 28 years as a special agent for the FBI.
The evening’s festivities, titled “Honoring the Past, Securing the Future,” celebrated Hispanic Americans for the contributions they have made to America in many areas. These areas include the defense of the nation, the arts, sports, public service, civil rights, politics, business, research and development and the service industry that have helped America maintain its relevance and position in the global landscape.
Vale, who spoke remotely due to the ongoing COVID-19 protocols at West Point, began his dialogue about how enthusiastic he was to speak to the cadets considering his background growing up in the Hudson Valley and, once upon a time, working at West Point.
“In the summer of 1984, I worked at your mess hall serving food, cleaning up and mopping the floors,” Vale said. “To be able to return as a guest speaker to a place that I literally grew up in awe and I am still in awe with the reputation, the leader, the institution that is West Point is something that I will never be able to put into words.”
He then talked about his work as the executive assistant director for the FBI’s Human Resources Branch before retiring from his service. In that job, one of his responsibilities was overseeing the FBI’s Diversity and Inclusion program.
Vale shared that it was challenging to get senior leaders in the FBI organization to attend their monthly diversity program events, generally due to the workload and not necessarily about it not being important. However, he always reiterated how important it was to the workers at the lower levels to see that the higher executives cared about who they are, their backgrounds and where they came from.
“The organization can not afford to not make time to attend diversity events. It means something to the troops,” Vale said. “It not only shows you’re committed, but it also shows you want to learn about other cultures. When you learn about other cultures, you learn more about your employees, you learn more about the community that we’re sworn to protect.”
Vale left the cadets with food for thought as they become and grow into leaders of character in the U.S. Army, especially as West Point graduates, and for them to always think about the ones they lead and their cultural backgrounds.
“As you continue in your career in the military, always remember actions matter and people are watching,” Vale said. “People are watching what the West Point graduate did. You won’t be Johnny, Roger or Suzie, because the minute you don that uniform, you became something greater than yourself and you will be held to a higher standard.
“There are only a few institutions where that happens,” he added. “Be proud of that and wear it as a badge of honor, but also accept the responsibility that it comes with.”
He also spoke about the importance of accepting responsibility for inclusion within an organization as he said, “People think of diversity as being invited to the party, but inclusion is being asked to dance.”
“For instance, you have a workforce that is 40% minority and you’re happy with that number because it is reflective of the community of where you are at,” Vale said. “But, if you don’t include that 40% in your decisions, if you don’t seek their input, if you don’t take the time to get to know them — then you failed. We are all a team. Success is dependent on everyone doing their part, no matter how small or how big it may be.”
During Vale’s speech, he mentioned that roughly 18%, or nearly 60 million, of the 330 million people living in America are Hispanic. Hispanics come to mainland America from several countries, including Puerto Rico, where both of Vale’s parents came from, and have provided a rich diverse cultural legacy.
“Hispanics from around the world are unique in our own way, yet we share many similarities,” Vale said. “We are so proud of what it means to be Hispanic. During Hispanic Heritage Month, we celebrate the remarkable achievements of people of Hispanic heritage and the remarkable and beautiful Latin communities around the world and here at home.”
Vale included well-known names like Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic to be named to the Supreme Court, and global icon dancer, singer and actress Jennifer Lopez, among others like Rita Moreno, Andy Garcia and Antonio Banderas.
However, he also mentioned lesser known Hispanic names who were just as important in American history, such as Franklin Chang-Diaz, who in 1986 was the first Hispanic to go into space. Ellen Ochoa, who was the first Hispanic female to go into space in 1990. And, from the military angle, Cpl. Joseph De Castro, who became the first Hispanic American to be awarded the Medal of Honor for his efforts during the Battle of Gettysburg in the American Civil War, and becoming the first of roughly 50 military personnel of Hispanic heritage to have received the Medal of Honor.
Then, there are those of Hispanic heritage who made their mark at West Point in some way, shape or form.
“There are those who paved the way for you at West Point, people like Maj. Gen. Luis Raul Esteves, the first Hispanic to graduate from West Point with the Class of 1915,” Vale said. “Or Col. Maritza Saenz Ryan, who was the first woman Hispanic West Point graduate to serve as an academic department head (in law).
“When you hear these names … they always should serve the greatness that is our country and West Point, and through hard work, dedication and opportunity, it’s a chance that great things can and will be accomplished,” he added. “As my dad would say, ‘work harder than anyone else, prove yourself (no matter who you are).’”
Before the keynote speaker addressed the crowd, he was introduced by master of ceremonies’ Class of 2021 Cadets Nathania Nuno, the 3rd Regiment Respect representative, and Jonathan-Scott (JD) Davidson, the Brigade Respect Captain.
Vale’s speech offered great insight for both Davidson and Nuno.
“He talked about maintaining accountability,” Davidson said. “To really drive home in your organization, with the people you work with, that it is up to them to serve as those inclusive leaders. Today, like any leadership competency, it takes that constant accountability to step up and ensure that the organization you’re leading is diverse, inclusive and you’re especially putting in that effort to make it happen.
“I thought that was crucial because that is a calling not only to him, the position he was in, but to all leaders at all levels,” Davidson added.
As for Nuno, who is of Hispanic heritage, she is proud of the ability of many Hispanic people to overcome their upbringing to make something of themselves, particularly as Vale rose to the fourth most influential position in the FBI.
“It really hit home when he mentioned the fact he used to be a mess hall worker, so as a Hispanic female to learn about people like him makes me proud of where I’m from since I come from a low income community where people don’t really go to college,” Nuno said. “I live in one of the poorest zip codes in Arizona, so to hear his background and where he is from really resonates with me and makes me feel proud of myself and my accomplishments, and also people like him to be in positions that high. It gives me motivation to keep going and prospering.”
Nuno and Davidson, from their different perspectives, also spoke of what it means to them to come to the event and celebrate Hispanic heritage.
“I was born in Mexico. I am one of the Spanish Club members and in charge of the club, so it means a lot to me, heritage wise, and also seeing all of my friends, even if they are not of Hispanic heritage, it means a lot to me that they came here and acknowledged the importance of events like these,” Nuno said. “And, not just Hispanic heritage, but all the different observances and all the different dinners that brings us together and realize that we are an organization of people and people encompass everything we do.”
Davidson added that he applauds West Point’s push into diversity and inclusion, and that being inclusive leaders is “uncompromisable.” He used the words of the Army’s Chief of Staff Gen. James C. McConville to drive home his point explicitly with the Hispanic Heritage celebration as the backdrop.
“In the words of Gen. McConville, we cannot perfectly understand the lives and experiences of Soldiers of color and ethnicity in or out of uniform, but we do understand taking care of people and people are our greatest strength,” Davidson said. “Seeing other people come out to the Hispanic Heritage observance dinner and seeing them show that recognition, show that support, look each other in the eyes and truly say, ‘you’re valued and you are here, you belong here,’ that means a lot, absolutely means a lot.
“In a world where that may not be certain, but by doing so just makes us a more cohesive team,” he concluded. “It says the organization itself cares and the people around you care — and that truly makes a difference.”