From humble beginnings to rising in ranks: Honoring Hispanic Americans

By Laura LeveringSeptember 29, 2023

Sgt. 1st Class Melissa Hernandez, U.S. Army Signal School, speaks to a classroom of Soldiers at Cobb Hall, Fort Gordon, Georgia, on Sept. 26. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo by Laura Levering) VIEW ORIGINAL

FORT GORDON, Ga. — A first generation American born to Mexican immigrants, Sgt. 1st Class Melissa Hernandez was unsure of what she wanted to pursue after high school, but she knew one thing she did not want to become: a burden to her parents.

“I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, to be honest” she said. “I just know that I didn’t want [my parents] to be in a bad financial situation just because they were trying to get my brother and I into college and things like that.”

Then an Army recruiter visited Hernandez’s high school during her senior year and caught her attention. Like Hernandez, the Soldier was a Hispanic female, about the same height, and appeared to have several other similarities.

“Cpl. Diaz. I’ll never forget her,” Hernandez said. “We began talking, and she said, ‘If I can do it, so can you.’”

And she did.

Hernandez 2
Sgt. 1st Class Melissa Hernandez's mother, Rosa Jimenez (center), celebrates becoming a U.S. citizen in September 2022. Born in Mexico, Jimenez received her citizenship via the Military Parole in Place (MIL-PIP) after "several years of trusting the process," Hernandez said. Also pictured are Lt. Curry, Harris County Constable Precinct 4, Houston; Angela Hernandez, Melissa's sister; and Antonio Hernandez, Melissa's brother. (Photo Credit: Courtesy photo) VIEW ORIGINAL

Eager to go, Hernandez chose to enlist as an information technology specialist on the basis that it would send her off to Basic Combat Training sooner than other options presented to her. Just two days after graduating high school, then-17-year-old Hernandez was on a plane to Fort Jackson, South Carolina, for BCT. It was her first time leaving her home state of Texas and would become the first of many trips across the globe.

Hernandez’s first duty station was in Kuwait. Following a year there, she went to Fort Stewart, Georgia, then deployed to Afghanistan, where she was promoted to sergeant, and next reported to Fort Sam Houston, Texas, where she became a platoon sergeant.

“I was a brand-new sergeant, and they had enough confidence and trust in me to lead the platoon of senior leaders and officers, which meant a lot to me,” Hernandez said. “They saw something in me, they gave me a chance, and I think that honestly paved the way for me, because ever since then, I’ve been in leadership positions.”

Hernandez’s career eventually took her back overseas, to Naples, Italy, where she served as NCOIC of an information system section, then to Spain where she completed a six-week mission alongside the Spanish army, then back to Fort Gordon in 2020, where she was an instructor at the U.S. Army Signal School. While assigned to the Signal School, Hernandez’s leadership recommended that she interview for a leadership position as the regimental command sergeant major’s executive administrative assistant. Unsurprisingly, she was selected.

Hernandez 5
Regimental Command Sgt. Maj. Linwood Barrett, left, and Sgt. 1st Class Melissa Hernandez, background, U.S. Army Signal School, visit Soldiers at Cobb Hall, Fort Gordon, Georgia, on Sept. 26. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo by Laura Levering) VIEW ORIGINAL

Regimental Command Sgt. Maj. Linwood E. Barrett, said that leadership undoubtedly made the best choice when they recommended Hernandez as his executive administrative assistant, stating she is “a true example of what right looks like.”

“Sgt. 1st Class Hernandez is a steward of the Army profession that leads by example and uses her experiences and knowledge to take care of the team,” Barrett said.

As the regimental command sergeant major’s executive administrative assistant, Hernandez is responsible for managing his calendar — a significant key to “ensuring that he can be at the right place, at the right time, in the right uniform,” she explained.

And while it may seem like a small task to some, for a high-ranking leader whose calendar is jampacked with travel, various events, and who wants to be “out interacting with Soldiers as much as he can,” the position requires someone who is well-organized, meticulous at paying attention to detail, and a team player — all qualities Hernandez embodies.

“She is dedicated to getting the task accomplished to the highest standard with the utmost professionalism … the ultimate team player,” Barrett said.

As passionate as Hernandez is about being the best Soldier she can be, her role as mother and wife are just as important, if not more-so. Married to an Army veteran, Hernandez said that the Army has helped provide her and her family a life she wouldn’t trade for anything.

Hernandez 3
Sgt. 1st Class Melissa Hernandez, U.S. Army Signal School, enlisted in the Army in 2009. A first generation American, Hernandez is proud of her Hispanic heritage and strives to be an example of what hard work and dedication can accomplish in the U.S. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo by Tai Doick) VIEW ORIGINAL

“I get to be a mom and a Soldier at the same time,” she said. “I have a good work and personal life balance … I want other Soldiers to be able to see that having a family or wanting to start a family should not stop you from progressing in your career. You can have the best of both worlds.”

Her daughters, ages 8 and 4, are Hernandez’s greatest source of inspiration to continue excelling in the Army, which she plans to do until she is eligible to retire.

“I want them to see that there is no gender for being the best that they can be, I want them to see that their mom was a go-getter, that their mom did everything she said she was going to do, there was no stopping her … there’s always obstacles, it’s just how you go around them,” Hernandez said.

And just as she aspires to be a role model for her daughters, Hernandez also hopes to inspire other Soldiers she encounters — much like Cpl. Diaz did 14 years ago. One of her main goals is to achieve the rank of first sergeant so that she can be back in front of Soldiers leading them.

“I want them to see that someone who looks like me can make it to the top ... sometimes we let little obstacles get in the way, and I want to prove to them that they can do it,” she said. “Just like my recruiter told me, ‘If I can do it, so can you.’”

Hispanic Heritage Month

During National Hispanic Heritage Month, Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, the U.S. reflects on the rich history and contributions of more than 60 million Hispanic Americans and Latinos who are part of this great nation.

Dating all the way back to the Revolutionary War, Hispanic Americans have been serving and fighting in almost every war since our nation’s birth. Today, more than 17% of America’s Soldiers and 7% of Army civilians are of Hispanic or Latino descent.

For Hernandez, Hispanic Heritage Month is deeply personal. Had her mother not immigrated from Mexico at 18 years old, Hernandez and her family would not be where they are today.

“In a way, I do what I do today, because they couldn’t,” she said, referring to her parents. “If I was born in Mexico, and my mom and dad had stayed over there, my life would be completely different than it is today. They didn’t have the opportunities I have.”