By DONNA URSCHEL
Latino veterans need to tell their stories of military service so future generations can appreciate their contributions to society, said Rep. Joe Baca (D-Calif.) in a speech Oct. 1 at the Library to mark Hispanic Heritage Month and to promote Latino participation in the Veterans History Project.
"Too often we forget our veterans and their contribution to society. We forget that the freedoms we have here today exist because there was someone willing to serve. A man or a woman was always willing to step up to the plate and fight for this country," he said.
"What we're doing here today is honoring the many sacrifices of our veterans. This is the same goal of the Veterans History Project, to pay tribute to our veterans, to gather their stories so future generations can hear them," Baca said.
The Veterans History Project, through the Library's American Folklife Center, collects and preserves oral histories and documentary materials from veterans and those who served in support of them in World War I, World War II, and the Korean, Vietnam and Persian Gulf Wars.
A veteran of the Vietnam War, who served in the U.S. Army as a paratrooper in both the 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions from 1966-68, Baca said he is proud to be a veteran and he is proud of the many other Latinos who have served.
"When I look at all the contributions that Hispanics have made, I'm proud. I don't know what it is within ourselves but it always seems like we're at the front of the line, willing to serve our country," Baca said.
Baca said he was talking recently to young Latinos from California about the Iraq situation. "They were willing to go right now to Iraq. They're willing to fight for this country, because they know the importance of what it means in terms of the freedoms we enjoy. They're willing to be on the front lines to face our national enemies."
Latinos represent about 8 percent of military personnel and 4 percent in the officer ranks, he said. Latinos have received 40 of the more than 3000 Congressional Medals of Honor awarded.
"Why have Latinos been drawn to the military? Over the years the military has been a way for Latinos to get an education, start a career. There is discrimination in this country, yet we'll fight for this country because we believe overall that it is a great country," Baca said.
He urged Latino veterans to take part in the Veterans History Project so "future generations can hear us tell our stories in our own ways. They must hear it from different perspectives, not just what you read in the history books. That's just one perspective."
Baca credited the military with giving him the discipline and motivation to attend college and pursue a career path that led to the U.S. Congress. The youngest of 15 children, Baca graduated from high school unsure of what he wanted to do in life. A friend persuaded him to choose military service, with the goal of becoming a paratrooper. In 1966, he volunteered for the draft.
"I probably wouldn't be here in the United States Congress if it had not been for the military, because it provided for me the kind of leadership and guidance that I needed. It gave me the opportunity to build my own personal leadership and my own character, in terms of what I wanted to do when I returned. It gave me an opportunity to receive an education, because during that period of time we had the G.I. Bill. And I decided that I wanted to go back to school," Baca said.
The future congressman returned home and earned a bachelor's degree in sociology from California State University, Los Angeles. He started as a high school counselor, worked for 15 years in community relations, built a business with his wife, Interstate World Travel in San Bernardino, and served in the California legislature for seven years.
After his election to the California Assembly in 1992, he was elected speaker pro tempore, the first Hispanic to hold the position since California joined the Union in 1850.
He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in November 1999 in a special election, and he was re-elected to a full two-year term in November 2000.
As a member of Congress, Baca's goal is to pay respect to the veterans and to address their needs. "I'll continue to fight for veterans. All of us must do that. Not only members of Congress and the legislature, but we as community members, the members of this country, must continue to honor veterans and recognize the importance of their contribution and their sacrifices," he said.
"There's not enough that we're doing for veterans. We've got to do more," said Baca, who then asked the audience to join him in a moment of silence to remember those who have died.
"I'm glad to be here to join you in celebrating the Veterans History Project and Hispanic Heritage Month, and I'll continue to fight on behalf of veterans."
Baca concluded, "I'm a veteran, a proud veteran, and I'm glad to have served this country. I will honor everyone who has served this country and continues to serve this country. Let's all stand together to make sure we continue to do that, because we're here because of them."
Donna Urschel is a freelance writer.