Saluting my Hermanas in Arms this Memorial Day

Last year the Military Writers Society of America published an essay I contributed to the 2013 anthology titled “Our Voices.” You can find the book at here.  It’s comprised of 60 essays and 15 images, all created by military writers, including essays by Valerie Ormond and Miyoko Hikiji, two members of the recently launched National Women Veterans Speakers Bureau.  The book is lovingly compiled and edited by Betsy Beard, VP of MWSA, mother of Army Specialist Bradley S. Beard who deployed to Iraq in 2004 and “deployed to Heaven” after that to use Betsy’s words.

If you know a military member or veteran, allow me to suggest this book as the perfect gift this Memorial Day as we remember those who have died in service to our nation.

Military Writers Society of America 4th Annual Anthology

Military Writers Society of America 4th Annual Anthology

Because Latina women in military uniforms are rarely seen in news stories, because the average American doesn’t think of a Latina servicewoman when he/she hears the word “military veteran,” I wrote this piece to shine the light on several who have served with distinction and those who have died while serving.

The essay published under the title “Speaking Up for My Hermanas in Arms,” – here I’ll call it what I originally titled it “Saluting My Hermanas in Arms,” which seems perfect as we approach Memorial Day. Here it is, as published, with a few updates added in there to provide links to more.

I hope it touches your heart and I hope you share it with someone who has served.

Saluting My Hermanas in Arms

Our voices are rarely heard in conversations about military veterans. Say “military veterans” and most adults and children will immediately think of elderly gentlemen carrying flags in a hometown parade. Say “Latina” and most adults will think of a sexy media-created stereotype; don’t believe me? Go to Google images and search “Latina” to see what I mean.

In the USA today, the nation’s 51 million Latinos are still invisible on mainstream media, unless it’s to reinforce a tired stereotype. When we show up to sing the National Anthem at major sporting events on broadcast TV as happened twice this summer, many confused haters refuse to see us as Americans, call us foreigners or worse. I miss that about the active force, the multicultural teams of Americans from every corner of our vast nation. I remember that while I served, globally, the sense of team, mission and camaraderie always trumped any issues of ethnicity, race and such matters. I’m reminded daily as a civilian and veteran that the American people really haven’t evolved away from fear, ignorance and misunderstanding of people with names and skin different than their own.

So I offer my voice, one of many too-quiet voices of Latina military veterans and service women, so that we can begin to associate the word Latina with the image of a strong, self-assured American woman, in service to country, in a military uniform. Many Latinas like me come from families with a long history of military service, a heritage of service that has not been celebrated and a tradition of service that remains largely unknown to our fellow veterans and to our fellow Americans. So I raise my voice to showcase a few examples.

I want you to think of Lt. Colonel Olga Custodio, daughter of an Army sergeant, who holds the distinction of being the first Latina to complete U.S. Air Force military pilot training. Upon retiring from the military, she became the first Latina commercial airline captain too. Yet, like so many other extraordinary Latinas, even as an Air Force aviator, I had never heard her name. I heard of her on a business trip to San Antonio, immediately interviewed her and wrote the first profile of this distinguished aviator. It was first featured in Fox News Latino and later on a national TV broadcast on Fox, a gorgeous six-minute video tribute of her personal story and desire to pursue military aviation service. When I read my bilingual children’s book and speak about my own military aviation service at school events around the nation, children enjoy seeing Olga with the T-38 supersonic jet she flew as a military instructor pilot. They love Olga’s story of tenacity. Many more Americans know of Lt. Colonel Custodio’s determined service and her accomplishments. Little Latina girls have a new, important role model of substance. Our voices as Latinas, as bloggers, as veterans, matter.

I want you to think of Lieutenant Jessica Davila, the first Latina Coast Guard helicopter pilot, who recently summarized her story in LatinaStyle Magazine. Her first seven applications to attend flight school were rejected; her tenacity paid off and she was selected the eighth time she applied; off to Naval Air Station Pensacola she went. Should you ever find yourself at peril on the sea, it might be Lt. Davila, First Pilot in the MH-65D, who saves your life while hovering over you. Her determination, her voice as an outlier Latina aviator, matters.

I want you to think of Kerrin Torres-Meriwether, a Navy veteran now middle teacher and her twin sister who is a Marine captain (and mother) deployed to Afghanistan for a year. In one of our first email exchanges she shared with me:

“We come from a long line of military service members: our grandfathers were in the Air Force, various Army uncles, a brother attended high school military academy and Valley Forge, a retired USMC dad, retired USAF National Guard step mom, an aunt who’s an Air Force nurse, etc. We are a proud military family.”

I had the privilege of being invited to Kerrin’s middle school in Maryland in April, to deliver the presentation I call “The Unlikely Military Aviator” in English and Spanish to dozens of students with last names like hers and like mine. WE two made that event happen, our voices as Latina veterans inspire our young people; our voices matter. I’m confident that because she is their teacher and I was their guest speaker, future military officers will come from that group of students.

Importantly, I want us to also remember a few more names, names I was exposed to this week when I discovered the upcoming Tribute Flight project, a “77-day mission flown in a specially modified aircraft bearing the names of American and Coalition troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

They created a montage titled “Fallen Military Women Tribute Video,” a must-watch video that beautifully honors our fallen women. Here are the names I want to highlight, my fallen hermanas in arms:

Aleinas Gonzales
Analaura Gutierrez
Ashley Sietsema
Barbara Vieyra
Anamarie Camacho
Emily Perez
Frances Vega
Adriana Alvarez
Juana Arellano
Jessica Sarandrea
Maria Ortiz
Linda Tarrango
Myla Maravillosa
Dominique Cruz
Tamara Archuleta
Ramona Valdez
Linda Jiménez
Tamarra Ramos
Thalia Ramirez
Lizbeth Robles
Isela Rubalcava
Niyireth Marin
Marisol Heredia

These are the ladies with obviously Latino-looking names; surely I missed others who married someone, as we Latinas do often, whose last name is something completely different.

My point is simple: I want to stop, reflect on the full sacrifice these Latinas made for this nation, honor them and be their voice that says, “I served proudly. I died in service as an American military woman. Please remember my name.”

The last fallen military woman you’ll see in the video is Captain Victoria Pinckney. Her maiden name? Victoria Ann Castro, daughter of Larry and Michelle Castro. “Tory” attended the U.S. Air Force Academy, played rugby and earned a Bachelor’s Degree in systems engineering space systems. She met her future husband Richard there and graduated in 2008. Tory became a military pilot and earned a Master Degree in psychology. When she perished in a KC-135 plane crash near Chon-Aryk, Kyrgyzstan on May 3, 2013 the accident didn’t make national news, but I heard about it immediately because she was from Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane, Washington. Specifically, she and her crew were part of the 93rd Air Refueling Squadron, my former squadron from the 1990s.

I mourned her death and that of her crew and raised my voice. We halted production on my bilingual children’s book, a book about a Captain Mama who serves onboard KC-135s, just like Victoria. I learned that she was indeed a true Captain Mama – a 27 year-old first-time mommy of a little boy named Gabriel who was seven months old when she died. I cried for her baby boy who would remember nothing of his extraordinary mother and would only know of her through stories later in life. I cried for her husband, suddenly a young widower and single father to an infant. I cried for her sisters, her father and as a mother of three, I cried for her mother. I decided to pay my respects to Tory though the children’s literature we were creating. I wondered if I would ever feel it was enough to honor this young woman and aviator. Her name and the names of her fellow crewmembers, now included in a special tribute in the book, will be known to kids in schools, homes and libraries forever. I have a new appreciation for the work that I do and so I raise my voice a little bit louder.

Victoria’s extraordinary life was beautifully summarized in an 8-minute video shared within a Facebook group honoring her time on Earth. It’s here and I hope that as you hear my voice, you take a moment to honor her life.

We women, we Latinas serve proudly, as many in our families have also done before us. When one of us is killed in action, we shouldn’t be invisible. We must be seen and appreciated as Americans, as service women, who gave everything. I want the voices of our Latina service women to be recorded, available and seen and heard. I want our voices to speak to baby Gabriel one day, to add to what his family will tell him about his mother. I want him to know that his mother was part of an amazing group of women too, so he can appreciate her in that context as well. As an author, I want him to know how much she was loved and admired, even by someone like me who never met her. I want him to hear our proud, American, Latina voices, and so I write…

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