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NEWS | Sept. 24, 2014

'Americans first': Soldier reflects on Hispanic heritage

By Airman 1st Class Kimberly Nagle 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

More than 40,000 Puerto Ricans served during the Korean War with the 65th Infantry Regiment. Hispanic Americans have been serving in the armed forces for many years. According to Defense.Gov, today, more than 125,000 Hispanic Americans serve in the Armed Forces.

U.S. Army Sgt. Maj. Jose Velazquez, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command public affairs sergeant major is a Hispanic American serving in the military today. As he reflects on Hispanic Heritage Month, he recalls what joining the Army meant to him and how it changed his life. Velazquez said he grew up in the lawless Essex Street Projects of Lawrence, Massachusetts, with his mother who moved from Puerto Rico to the United States.

"My mother worked in factories to help provide and raise me," said Velazquez. "Her hopes for me were to not become another statistic of the city, with working in a factory or ending up dead on a street corner."

Velazquez made friends with the kids in the neighborhood who shared a similar lifestyle. Inside the home lived their Hispanic American families where Spanish was spoken. But once the kids left the household, they spoke English.

After graduating high school, Velazquez tried his hand at community college, but said he fell short.

"At the time, I was [still] struggling to not be a statistic, but in many ways I already was," he explained. "By 1990, I had already failed out of college and had been hired by a clothing factory working in what was known as the 'sweat shop.'"

Velazquez said he knew this was not the life he wanted to live, but was not sure about how to survive otherwise.

"I still remember like it was yesterday," said Velazquez. "What I remember the most is the blank stares of the good, decent men and women who worked there. It felt like their hopes and dreams had died amongst those mill walls. I knew I couldn't stay there. I knew I had to find a way out."

Velazquez said he knew it would be hard to change this part of his life because where he grew up, people tended to stay in the same area. Luckily for him, his opportunity came in the form of an Army recruiter who stopped him on the street and began explaining benefits of the military lifestyle.

"At first I wasn't sure," he said. "I didn't know anything about the military but the recruiter piqued my interest."

Velazquez said what stood out the most during that conversation was that the recruiter spoke to him like a person; in a professional manner, which Velazquez said he hadn't experienced much before.

He was so impressed; he went back for a second meeting.

That day, Velazquez decided the Army was the life for him - a way out of the factories and the town that never let people go.

Even though he was convinced this was the right decision, Velazquez had yet to face one "big" hurdle - telling his mother.

"In June of 1990, my mother looked me in the eyes, and in her most loving voice asked, 'Vas a hacer que? Tu estas loco mijo?' That means, 'You're going to do what? Are you crazy son?'" Velazquez explained. "That was the reaction I got when I told her I was joining the Army." She wasn't sold on the idea, she didn't know much about the military. All she knew was from what she saw on the television."

Initially, his mother thought he would be sleeping in a tent on the ground somewhere, but after Velazquez explained more of the Army lifestyle, he said his mother realized it was his ticket out of the world they lived in.

"She kissed me on the cheek, gave me a hug and told me, 'Si lo vas a hacer, entonces llega a lo mas alto,' which means, 'If you're going to do it, then make it to the very top,'" he recalled. "She wanted me to be the best Soldier I could be."

Velazquez set out to do just that.

"[The Army] gave me opportunities I couldn't have even dreamed of," he said. "The Army saved my life and I am forever grateful for the opportunities it provided me."

Velazquez said Hispanic Americans and the importance of his own heritage have inspired him throughout his career.

"The Hispanic presence in the United States [hasn't always been] well-recognized for its 'firsts,' but has always been impressive, amazing and at the very fiber of our American experience," said Velazquez. "Until recent decades, the Hispanic population of the United States had been quite small. Nevertheless, from the American Revolution to our present conflicts around the world, Hispanic Americans have risked their lives to defend the United States and the principles upon which it stands.  One thing everyone should remember is that Hispanic Americans are still Americans first."