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Face of Defense: Soldier Reflects on Hispanic Heritage

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

JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va., Sept. 24, 2014 – Army Sgt. Maj. Jose Velazquez, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command public affairs sergeant major, is one of the more than 158,000 Hispanic Americans serving in the military today. Reflecting on National Hispanic Heritage Month, which began Sept. 15 and runs through Oct. 15, he recalled what joining the Army meant to him and how it changed his life.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Army Sgt. Maj. Jose Velazquez joined the Army as a way to get out of his hometown and fight the possibility of becoming a “statistic.” U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Kimberly Nagle

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Velazquez said he grew up in the lawless Essex Street Projects of Lawrence, Massachusetts, with his mother, who had moved from Puerto Rico to the United States.

“My mother worked in factories to help provide and raise me,” he said. “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.”

After graduating from high school, Velazquez said, he tried his hand at community college, but 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 knew I couldn’t stay there’

“I still remember like it was yesterday,” he said. “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 and in a professional manner, which Velazquez said he hadn’t experienced much before. He was so impressed, he said, he went back for a second meeting.

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

One big hurdle

But first, he had 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.”

Initially, he said, his mother thought he would be sleeping in a tent on the ground somewhere, but that after he explained more of the Army lifestyle, she 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 saved my life’

“[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.

“Until recent decades, the Hispanic population of the United States had been quite small,” he said. “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.”


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