LatinaStyle Distinguished Military Service Awards 2023 Remarks

By Brandy MejiaSeptember 21, 2023

As Prepared for Delivery

Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth

National Latina Symposium

LatinaStyle Distinguished Military Service Awards

21 September 2023

Good afternoon. Thank you for that kind introduction and warm welcome. I am so grateful to LatinaStyle for inviting me here today. This is a fantastic event for all of us to gain knowledge, empowerment, and inspiration. It is an honor to speak alongside leaders from across the military as we recognize the accomplishments of an amazing group of young women service members and celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month.

For the United States Army, this is a particularly important celebration. Since 1779, when volunteers from Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Mexico fought for American independence, Latinos have served with distinction in the Army.

From Corporal Joseph De Castro, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions during the battle of Gettysburg, to General Cavazos, the first Latino four-star General who fought in Korea and Vietnam, we recognize the service, dedication, and sacrifice that Latino soldiers have displayed in the Army and across all branches of our Armed Forces.

They are an integral part of our history, and they are an integral part of today’s military – both in uniform and civilian, from the most junior to the most senior levels of the organization. I am very proud to work every day with Undersecretary of the Army Gabe Camarillo and Deputy Undersecretary Mario Diaz, two proud American descendants of Mexican immigrants who are among DoD’s most senior leaders. They are also two of my closest, most trusted advisors.

Together with our colleagues in uniform, the three of us are proud to lead an institution that celebrates diversity as a key source of strength. Our mission demands that we face every threat with ingenuity and determination, and that the surest way to succeed in our mission is to build an Army that can draw on the talents of all qualified Americans. We have seen over the history of our nation and our Army that we are always strongest when we reflect the public that we serve. This is not a political message. The diversity of our Army, which reflects the many voices and communities of our nation, is truly the foundation on which we have built the greatest land fighting force in the world.

Looking out at this audience, I see an abundance of ingenuity and strength in the Latina women here today. Latinas make up more than 20 percent of all women who serve on active duty in the Army. And I can attest that these women are making an outsized impact in units around the world every day.

That impact is so clear in the stories of our awardees and our Latina soldiers that are here in this room. The Army relies on experts like Chief Warrant Officer Two Angelic Smith, a geospatial engineer and the Army’s first female artificial intelligence technician, to gain a competitive advantage in emerging technologies. She is at the forefront of research for our Army. She is also at the forefront of intense competition as she coached a team of 3rd and 4th graders to compete in Pennsylvania’s state STEM competition.

All across the Army we see examples of strong Latina leadership – in Staff Sergeant Martha Erosa, an accomplished physical therapist, triathlon competitor and coach, and noncommissioned officer in charge of the largest physical therapy clinic in the Department of Defense.

And in Lieutenant Colonel Maribel Lee, one of the driving forces behind the Army’s Female Mentorship and Morale program, who has worked tirelessly to advocate for her fellow women in uniform while also raising two children and caring for her mother.

I know the strength Latinas bring to our Army because I have been fortunate to have them on my team. Colonel Lourdes Costas, who is in the audience today, served on my personal staff and is the Army’s senior-ranking Latina air defense officer.

Colonel Costas has spent 21 years leading air defense units, including command of a Patriot missile battalion deployed to the Middle East. She is a mother to three boys, one of whom joined the Army as an officer in 2022, and she is the kind of role model that I know is already inspiring many of our young Latinas in the military. She is herself a trailblazer, but she also relied on the mentorship and role models of other strong Latinas in her family and the community to find her path to success.

Having spent most of my career within the Department of Defense, I know how difficult it can be for women in the national security field. I know how detrimental discrimination, harassment, and assault can be to retaining and empowering women in this field. And I know how hard it can be to just withstand and get past the casual dismissiveness, the uninformed assumptions, and the thoughtless put-downs that even today, still come with the territory. We have made a lot of progress in the last 75 years since women have been able to serve as regular members of the military, but we have much more work left to do. But I can tell you, the Army is committed to changing and being better. We continue to work hard to build cohesive teams, reduce harmful behaviors and be an organization that values individuals for their unique skills and experiences they bring to our Army.

Because we need strong women in our Army. Latinas are significantly underrepresented within our General Officer population, but given all the talent I see, this too will change! The Army cannot change overnight, but I am encouraged when I see outstanding officers like Lourdes Costas because I know that behind her are hundreds more bold, qualified, and capable Latinas who are ready to step up and serve at the highest levels of the Army.

As a mother of two girls, I also know how challenging it can be to face what seems like a choice between a family and a career. But I am here to tell you - and I know others like Maribel Lee and Lourdes Costas will tell you - you can do both, and you can excel at both! And the Army has been taking considerable steps to make it possible to do both, more than ever before!

This past year, we extended our parental leave policies to 12 weeks of paid leave for new parents, in addition to any related paid convalescent leave. We have funded eight new child development centers since 2021, with five more centers planned between now and 2026. And we have invested $3 billion to replace and renovate family housing to ensure that families live in safe, comfortable conditions.

For those of you already in the military, you know how much of an impact this can make. And you also know how important supportive communities can be to enabling success. That is why we have partnered with Latino communities across the nation to help talk about military service. Recruiting these past two years has been challenging for the Army and our sister services, but we have seen the Latino community’s support. This year, over 25% of our Army recruits have been Latino.

That is a huge testament to the work being done by recruiters in areas like Los Angeles, San Antonio, Miami, and New York City, but it is also a testament to the role that each of you plays in giving back to your communities and being that role model and mentor for the next generation.

All of you are leaders in your family and ambassadors to your community. So many young people look up to you as you share your values and demonstrate your professionalism and excellence. National service can take on many forms – joining the military is just one way to serve this country – but the young people in your communities are looking to you to show them how they can be the best version of themselves.

We see that in role models like Ms. Isabel Diaz-Goode, an accomplished electronics engineer and Army civilian serving as a division chief in Army Futures Command. She does cutting-edge research for the Army and mentors college students at the University of Texas El Paso and New Mexico State University. She gives back to her church and her community and inspires those young people looking for guidance as they start the next part of their lives.

And we see that in Cadet Olivia Shackleton, who enlisted in the Army and deployed to Iraq, using her language skills to communicate with our Spanish armed forces partners. She entered ROTC at Mississippi State University and uses those skills to work with local high schoolers through an English-as-a-Second-Language program. And she inspired so many – she led the entire Army for three weeks in the Enlisted Referral Program, connecting over 45 college candidates with Army recruiters to explore career opportunities in the Army.

These women have shown the communities the possibilities and opportunities the Army offers.

And the Army has so much to offer – from leadership, mentorship, life skills, and certifications, to financial and educational benefits.

And I am proud of our awardees who took advantage of those opportunities, like Captain Anna Zamora, a Division 1 collegiate strength coach who joined the Army National Guard and earned her degree and a commission as a Medical Service Corps officer. She completed a master’s degree in sports management and works at the National Guard Bureau developing the Army’s health and fitness programs.

And Cadet Julia Rodriguez, who enlisted as a military police officer and eventually became a Drill Sergeant. She is now working on her master’s degree in organizational leadership with a 4.0 GPA and hopes to one day earn a doctorate as an Army officer.

I am also proud of Cadet Ashley Garcia, who emigrated from Venezuela and joined the Army as a supply specialist and paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division. The Army recognized her talents and offered her the opportunity to earn a degree and commission as an officer. She is now working on her bachelor’s degree in health service administration at the University of Central Florida.

All of these women have taken the opportunities that the Army has provided and have chosen to serve the nation while also giving back to their communities and families.

The Army recently brought back its classic slogan, “Be All You Can Be,” and these women are showing us every day what that really means. I want young Latinas to know that military service offers tremendous possibilities.

And I am so proud of those who decide to be part of something larger than themselves and have chosen to serve our nation– as all of the awardees here today have done. I am proud to lead an Army that values the contributions that Latinos have made in our history. And I am proud to have these eight exceptional, strong, bold, and brilliant Latinas representing the very best our Army has to offer.

To all of the awardees here today in the Air Force, Space Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard: you are proof that Latinas are an irreplaceable part of our Armed Forces. The nation relies on you and your courage and determination. You have all accomplished so much, and what you are doing today inspires generations of other young women across the country.

So congratulations again, to all of the awardees and thank you for your kind attention here today.