WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Sept. 24, 2010) -- The combatant commander who led coalition forces in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein encouraged Hispanic youths to take control of their futures Sept. 22.

"You can control your destiny, but it requires unrelenting perseverance and a never-accept-defeat approach to life," said retired Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez as he addressed a crowd during a Latino Leaders Network luncheon.

The Hispanic population is underrepresented in the Army, making up only 11 percent of the enlisted force in 2009. Latinos have a higher high school drop-out rate than any other ethnicity in the U.S. In 2008, for example, 18.3 percent of Hispanic high school students walked away from their studies -- which may be why Latino enlistments are lagging.

Sanchez highlighted his own struggle to defy this statistic by describing his meager upbringing in Texas and how, as a Hispanic teenager, he didn't receive support from teachers or other role models to reach his full potential. He explained that when he asked a high school guidance counselor for help applying to military academies he was told not to try -- he should become a welder like his father.

The retired general wasn't swayed. He received help from his Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps instructors, and was awarded both Army and Air Force ROTC scholarships, as well as nominations to West Point and the Naval Academy.

Sanchez eventually chose the University of Texas, and later graduated from Texas A&I University (now called Texas A&M University). He went on to hold commands in South Korea, Panama and Germany, and prior to heading the invasion into Iraq, he led troops during Operation Desert Storm and in Kosovo.

"You have achieved what so many of us want to see our young people achieve -- you are a role model," said California Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez of the retired general.

Despite successfully earning three-star rank, Sanchez said that during most of his career in the military, he didn't have a Hispanic mentor -- someone of similar background who he could look up to.

"Considering my beginnings, the odds have surely been against me," Sanchez said. "I had to prove wrong those who had very low expectations of me."

Currently, Hispanics make up only six percent of the active-duty officer corps, but when Sanchez enlisted, that number was even smaller. Sanchez explained that his superiors and peers at first didn't believe in him, simply because of his ethnicity.

"Nobody expected Hispanics to succeed in the officer corps," he noted.

Since then, Sanchez said, the climate for Latino servicemembers has changed -- no other organization has embraced equal opportunity like the military, he said.

However, Sanchez would like to see more Latino young people improve their lives by considering the military as a career.

The retired general stressed the importance of moral courage, and for advice offered, "only you can compromise your integrity."