WIESBADEN, Germany - "I remember thinking -- it was the land of new beginnings."

That's how Hispanic American Heritage Month guest speaker Maria C. Taylor described her first impressions of the United States as a young immigrant from Durango, Mexico.

Taylor, who came to the U.S. as a child, overcoming language limitations to attend school in Rochelle, Ill., and serve in the military for 10 years, described how her family was separated during the trip north and the challenges of being one of only a few Spanish-speaking children in kindergarten. "On the first day of school I only spoke Spanish and ended up repeating kindergarten," she said.

After considering going to college, but not being able to afford the expense, Taylor said she was swayed by a visiting Army recruiter to join the Army Reserves in 1989.

"I wanted to be all I could be," Taylor said, explaining that "as a young Soldier I volunteered for any training available. … I loved the Army life. … I had a world of experiences. I was very thankful to the Army."

In addition to eventually gaining U.S. citizenship, Taylor said her goals also included gaining a university education. That led to an associate's degree from the University of Alaska and nearing completion of a bachelor's degree in elementary education from the University of Phoenix. She was also recognized with the African-American, Hispanic, Asian and Native American Descent Woman of Excellence Award from the University of Alaska.

"No matter who you are, where you come from or whatever challenges you face, you can overcome them," Taylor told listeners in the Wiesbaden Fitness Center Sept. 23. "I'm Hispanic and a proud veteran."

Besides the guest speaker, the event, hosted by the 2nd Signal Brigade and community Equal Opportunity advisers, featured song and dance performances by Judith Jaurrieta, Ericka Gomez, Natalie Denison and Yadira Giannotti; and food prepared by local volunteers.

"Growing up, my mother was in the Puerto Rican National Guard as a dietician and in the Army Reserves," said Capt. Laiza Correa, 2nd Signal Brigade and one of the volunteers at the observance. "When I got to college I started asking her questions about the Army and I got interested. So I decided to join ROTC, and that's where my Army journey began."

After earning a bachelor's degree in applied kinesiology and hoping to become an Army physical therapist, Correa said she had a change of heart and decided to join combat arms.

"Living in Puerto Rico you have to be tough and are not supposed to cry. It's a very cultural thing. As a female Hispanic you feel you need to try even harder to excel and prove yourself," Correa said. "I wanted to go into combat arms because I said, 'I'm in the Army, so I want to be tough.'"

Now as the operations officer for 2nd Signal Brigade and nearing the end of her active duty career, Correa said she wants to proudly serve the military as a government civilian. "The Army enhanced my leadership skills, and a lot of it is about taking care of people. It fits right into being Puerto Rican, because we're very hospitable -- so I want to continue to serve in the military culture that allows me to use and express that."

Correa said it's important to celebrate diversity in the military. "They say that America is a melting pot, but I like to think of it as a chef salad. That way you see all of our color and diversities separately, but at the same time it makes a really nice mix," she said.

"We all have a different story to tell," said Col. Mitchell Kilgo, 2nd Signal Brigade commander, while thanking participants for their contributions.