Before you read this column, take a look in the mirror and ask yourself, "What was my most difficult task of the day, today?" While we all have our struggles, chances are that your answer wasn't "staying alive." Take another look in the mirror and ask yourself, "What did I stand for today?" Hopefully, your answers include, "my family, my friends, and my job." These are all the most noble of our daily aspirations; however most of us cannot say that on this day, we stood for our very own way of life. The concept is a deep one, and one that many lucky Americans, myself included, do not have to worry about on a daily basis. While we sit and stress about rent, taxes, and providing for our families while building our dream car, many Latino soldiers serving in the U.S. Military's "Operation Enduring Freedom" offensive in Afghanistan are faced with these challenges every day. Trust me, navigating our Lowriders through the pot holed streets of Los Angeles pales in comparison to travelling on the Kabul-to-Jalalabad Highway, a 40-mile stretch of road that features so many casualties that "people stopped counting them a long time ago." Keep in mind that this is without considering war casualties.
Operation Enduring Freedom was launched in response to the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. in October 7, 2001. The offensive became a joint effort between U.S. and British forces aimed at capturing Osama Bin Laden and his Al Queda Militia as well as Afghanistan's Taliban Forces, all of which have been widely believed to be responsible for that catastrophic attack on the U.S., which crumbled New York City's World Trade Towers, and nearly destroyed the Pentagon. Like the U.S. conflict in Vietnam, this is not a war without gray area, as Bin Laden himself is not an Afghanistan national, and the Taliban are more widely believed to be offering safe harbor for Al Queda forces than they are for attacking the U.S. directly. Before we tread into political waters, I'd like to point out that this is not an article with an agenda, as many Americans remain confused and conflicted about why we are risking American lives, White, Black, and Latino, for a cause that is not so concretely defined. Feel free to do your own research on the subject and form your own opinion on the matter, we are focused more on the fact that there are Latino soldiers fighting on the front lines in Afghanistan on behalf of the American way of life, and they should be supported unconditionally for it.
It is estimated that about 15-18 percent of all U.S. Military Branches are comprised of Latino enlistees, with each branch showing a different breakdown. The U.S. Marine Corps and The U.S. Navy remain the most highly populated, with over 15% and nearly 14% of their respective forces comprised of Latinos. The Army and Air Force show a representation of 12% and 6 % respectively. Latinos serving in the U.S. Military is nothing new, as nearly all of the 28 major conflicts the U.S. has been involved with over time have had Latino soldiers on the front lines, and over 40 of them have received The Congressional Medal of Honor, which is the U.S. Military's highest honor. Despite the high tradition of Latinos serving in the U.S. Military, it remains a cultural divider, as there are some Latinos that are serving without even being granted U.S. citizenship! Take the case of U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Mario Ramos-Villalta, an El Salvadorian national who has endured two tours in Iraq and has since been deployed for Afghanistan. The soldier, a Purple Heart recipient for Valor in Combat, says "A lot of the papers I get say, 'You're a great American,'" he says. "I am not an American citizen yet, but I still fight for it," he says, adding "Sometimes I do get depressed about still not being a U.S. citizen and going over there." This admirable courage is shared by Ramos-Villalta with an estimated 20,500 "non U.S. citizens," nicknamed "green-card warriors," who serve in today's U.S. Military. This is made possible by an initiative that former President George Bush signed granting immediate citizenship for any foreigners who served honorably after September 11, 2001. If the story of a man like Mario Ramos-Villalta, who has already been wounded in action and is on his third tour of active duty doesn't move you, than I would argue that he certainly deserves his citizenship more than you do. Many of the things we take for granted are the same things that non-nationals are fighting for, and herein lies the conflict: many serving Latinos face criticism from their own family members about "fighting for a country that they do not even belong to." This argument is justifiable, as I could not imagine fighting for a country that my immediate family cannot live in. This courage should be commended however, as it's safe to say that many of the more traditional U.S. citizens would be far less willing to die for their country. Of course this non-citizen enlistment is not the case with all Latino soldiers, as there are many Latino-Americans who are American citizens that have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A 2006 report on "Population Representation in the Military Services," issued by the Defense Department, determined that "with 11 percent of active duty enlisted members counted as Hispanic, this group remained underrepresented relative to the growing comparable civilian population (17 percent)." Most believe that there are more than 11 percent of active duty enlisted members that are Latino, because the number of non-citizens that are enlisted are not counted on the military's deployment reports, as they do not have the same paper work as U.S. Latino citizens. This makes it tough to estimate just how many Latino soldiers are currently serving in Afghanistan, although reports indicate that at least 12 percent of the nearly 50,000 U.S. Troops are of Hispanic descent. Breaking that statistic down even further, there have been over 800 U.S. casualties to date in Afghanistan, meaning that nearly 100 of our Latino brothers and sisters have passed away while fighting for the U.S. in this difficult conflict.
Undoubtedly, there are some of you reading this column with a firsthand account of this difficult experience, as many of you probably have a brother, sister, cousin, aunt, or uncle, father or mother, who is currently serving overseas. There may even be some of you out there who are actually reading this on the front lines. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you for your tremendous sacrifice for our country. My hope is that Americans of all races offer their unconditional support to those families affected during this excruciating time, regardless of gender, creed, or political beliefs. You can guarantee that while U.S. Troops take pride in their work overseas, they would definitely rather be enjoying these daily struggles that we feel overwhelmed by, than to be in the constant state of danger and conflict. Hitting up the Pomona Swap Meet or participating in a cruise night sounds a lot more fun to me than attempting to stop global terrorism while rebuilding a war-torn nation and ensuring American freedom and safety. I would much rather cruise somewhere in a low convertible than travel to Kabul in a Humvee equipped with a .50 Cal Semi-Automatic machine gun that is armed, "just in case." I encourage all of you out there to really sit down and think about what these brave Latino men and women are doing for you right now, the sacrifices they are making, and what it must be like to be away from your family and friends, and fighting in a war that seems so difficult to understand. We here at Lowrider offer our sincerest apologies to the families of our fallen soldiers, and our unwavering support to all families who have been or are currently affected by this conflict. We can only hope to find some way to pay you back.