Whenever the nation has called, in times of tranquility or conflict, Latinos have answered. More than 1.1 million Latinos across the country are veterans. Many have sacrificed all. Theirs are the names etched on the uniform white markers, some sparkling white, others well worn and showing their age, whose rows dot cemeteries across the country. All are all part of a very special fraternity of men and women.
It is a fraternity that 2012 Denver North High School graduate Miguel Bernal may not have considered before but will soon belong to. Bernal, a freshman at the University of Colorado-Boulder next fall, has signed on to the Army’s Reserved Officers Training Corps. In exchange for fully-paid college tuition, Bernal will serve as an officer in the Army after he graduates.
At North, Bernal spent four years in the school’s ROTC program, reaching the rank of Cadet Major. The program, which emphasizes the principles of leadership, physical training and basic military knowledge, sold Bernal on the Army. His 3.7 grade point average also helped seal the ROTC scholarship that will pay his way through CU.
“I think it’s great,” Bernal says of the ROTC scholarship. But more than that, he says, “it gives me the opportunity to serve my country.” The son of immigrant parents, Bernal hopes to study chemical engineering at CU and find a military occupational skill that matches up well with it after graduation.
More and more, post high school graduation plans for young Latino men and woman include the military. Recruiters say that in a soft economy, especially for young people, the military is not a tough sell. Also, the idea of adventure and travel holds strong appeal to young minds.
“I’ve been able to do everything that I wanted to do,” says Sgt. 1st Class Leticia Pasillas-Martinez, a Denver-based recruiter. The 22-year-veteran joined the Army not long after graduating from high school. It became a decision that exceeded her dreams.
“I’ve had the opportunity to continue my education and had the adventure of seeing so many different places,” says the Army salesperson. While in the Army, Pasillas-Martinez also married and raised a family.
Her boss, Maj. Taunya Ford, dressed in ‘digital’ camouflaged fatigues, nods in agreement as she listens nearby. Ford, who went to high school in Colorado Springs, recruits in Denver and across a five-state region.
“No matter where you come from, no matter what your background is, it doesn’t control what you can be,” is Ford’s pitch in selling the Army to a high school student. Her words are not only tried and true but a reflection of Ford’s own experience. “I went from being a child of a single parent who was raising five children to the executive officer,” she says. She also rose from the enlisted ranks to the officer corps.
“It is not what you’ve been or where you’ve come from,” Ford says, “it is what you want to be.” The Army, she says, will let you go as far as you choose. Of course, from time to time, the military likes to provide its own unique incentives to woo young minds. That is when it brings out ‘the big guns.’
Potential recruits love it when the military brings out recruiting tools like the Navy SEALS, or the Thunderbirds or Blue Angels for amazing air shows or the Black Knights, the Army’s precision paratroop squad. When these teams show up at high schools, interest spikes.
For a lot of graduating or soon-to-graduate Latino students, the Army holds the promise of steady pay, adventure and endless possibilities. For many, says Maj. Scott Lynch, North High’s ROTC commander, it provides foundational lessons for many young people — discipline, leadership and unit cohesion — as well as a peek into possibilities not yet imagined.
“This isn’t a recruiting tool,” Lynch says. Students in the program are not obligated to join the Army. But ROTC does give students a chance to experience what they may later want to explore.
The program, which begins in ninth grade and is an elective through senior year, is not easy. Nor, Lynch says, is it for everyone. But everyone, including undocumented students, is encouraged to, at least, see what it is about.
Today’s Army, which has more than a half-million troops, is safely meeting its recruiting goals. But it does want to make certain it maintains its diversity, which calls for a force that includes approximately 13 percent Latino. Among this number are several thousand non-citizens but who have certified immigration status.
Because recruiting is going well, the Army can be far more selective in recruiting than in previous eras. Maj. Lynch says it takes only high school graduates who can pass the Army’s aptitude test. A high school dropout wanting to join must have proof of a GED certificate and 15 hours of college credits. In certain cases, the Army will make exceptions.
Currently, North High rising seniors Angel Atayde and Miguel Rodriguez are preparing to take the Army’s vocational aptitude test. The young men, both 18, are planning on enlisting after graduation next spring. Their ROTC preparation could allow them enter above the normal entry rank, which would also mean a higher starting base pay.
“It’s a goal of mine to be an officer or sergeant major,” Atayde says. Coincidentally, Atayde will be North’s ROTC sergeant major next fall. His classmate and fellow cadet, Rodriguez, is joining for another reason. “I come from a family of military people.”
Despite the possibility of a deployment to a war zone, neither seems concerned. Both think what they’ve learned in ROTC and will later learn in the Army will pay off. But no matter how things play out, “I know I’m doing right by my country,” Rodriguez says. Atayde nods in affirmation.