By Lisa R. RhodesOctober 11, 2012
FORT GEORGE G. MEADE, Md. (Oct. 11, 2012) -- As our nation's heroes, service members are the leaders who can make positive change in communities that are in need.
That's the message Nelson A. Diaz gave in his guest speech to more than 300 people at the installation's annual Hispanic Heritage Month Observance on Oct. 4 at McGill Training Center.
"You are the leadership of our community," said Diaz, a former judge on the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. "Whether you are African American or Latino, you are the leaders that are going back into our communities and will hopefully bring about some change ... because you are the heroes."
The 90-minute event was hosted by the 70th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing; the Fort Meade Equal Opportunity Office; and the Equal Employment Opportunity Office.
The program also featured a performance of a dance from the Dominican Republic and samplings of Hispanic food.
Retired Sgt. 1st Class Myra Paulus, who served with the 247th Military Police Detachment, called Diaz's speech "phenomenal."
"Judge Diaz was one of the best speakers I have heard since I've been coming to these kinds of events," said Paulus, a Severn resident of Puerto Rican heritage. "He used a lot of humor while talking about his humble beginnings and how he came to be. He is a mentor and encouraged service members to do the same."
In her welcome, Col. Mary F. O'Brien, commander of the 70th ISRW, spoke about the inherent strengths of diversity.
"The diversity that we have in our armed forces and our nation is critical to excellence," O'Brien said. "The diverse personal experiences, perspectives and vision allow for creative thinking and help strive [toward] innovation and ingenuity."
In his remarks, Deputy Garrison Commander John Moeller, who presented Diaz with a Commander's Coin of Excellence, called the event "an extraordinary celebration."
Diaz, who grew up in public housing in Harlem, N.Y., was raised by a single mother from Puerto Rico. Diaz worked his way through college and earned his law degree in 1972 from Temple University in Philadelphia, becoming the first Puerto Rican to receive the degree from the university. While attending Temple, Diaz founded the university's first organization for black and Hispanic law students.
Diaz was the youngest judge elected to the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas and the first Latino judge in Pennsylvania's history. He also served as the city solicitor of Philadelphia and was later appointed by President Bill Clinton to serve as the general counsel for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. At HUD, Diaz focused on reforming public and mixed-use housing programs.
In his speech, Diaz called Hispanic Americans "a proud and distinguished group of people," particularly in the military.
Diaz said people of Hispanic origin have served in every one of the nation's wars. He noted several Hispanic service members including Lt. Augusto Rodriquez, a Puerto Rican officer who served in the Civil War, and Loreta Janeta Velazquez, a Cuban-born woman who dressed as a man to serve as a Confederate soldier during the Civil War.
Today, people of Hispanic origin are the nation's largest growing minority group. By 2050, there will more be more than 130 million Hispanics in the country, said Diaz, citing the 2010 U.S Census.
"Having that kind of a population creates a great multicultural and ethnically diverse population," he said.
The distinct Hispanic culture is represented by Mexican Americans, Colombians, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Dominicans and Argentineans, to name a few.
"Each one of them has an incredible contribution," Diaz said.
Despite the growing influence of Hispanics, Diaz said they remain "the most undereducated."
According to the 2010 census, only 13 percent of Hispanics age 25 and older have a college degree or higher and only 6.2 percent of full-time undergraduate and graduate students are Hispanic.
Diaz encouraged service members to reach out to needy communities in Baltimore and Washington, D.C.
"Reach out to the people who just want to know that they're worth something," he said.
To illustrate, Diaz shared how scientists have found that as geese fly south for the winter in a V formation, the birds flap their wings, creating an uplift for the birds flying behind them.
Scientists also have found, Diaz said, that when a goose is sick or injured, two geese leave the formation and follow the bird to the ground and stay with it until it is able to fly again or until the goose dies. The geese then join the remaining birds in the formation.
"People who share a common direction and a sense of community can get where they're going quicker and easier because they're traveling on the thrust of one another," Diaz said. "If we have as much sense as a goose, we will stand by each other in that way."
After the presentation, the Bachata, a slow dance from the Dominican Republic, was performed by Navy Yeoman 3rd Class Irving Figueroa, of Navy Information Operations Command Maryland; Terrisa Widener, a logistics management specialist at the Pentagon; and Kat Arias, owner of the Ferocity Dance Company in Vienna, Va.
Barrett's of Alexandria, Va., catered a lunch of rice and beans, hot turkey and chili sandwiches, and bread pudding.
On line for lunch, Staff Sgt. Clifton Burns, Alpha Company, 741st Military Intelligence Battalion, said he was moved by Diaz's presentation.
"I thought it was very motivational," he said.
Inspired by the geese story, Burns said he will soon deploy with a small group of Soldiers and they must work "toward a common goal."
Garrison Command Sgt. Maj. Thomas J. Latter attended the event with his wife, Terri.
"He was a great, great speaker," Latter said of Diaz. "The opportunity to be an American allows us to be diverse and be a part of a larger community. You can become who you want to be."