If You Want to Cut Military Costs, End Military Discrimination

Felix Conde-Falcon died in a jungle in Vietnam 45 years ago, gunned down after he took out three enemy bunkers, then single-handedly attacked and took a fourth with nothing but a machine gun.

Pedro Cano lived, but he came home from the snow-covered battlefields of World War II permanently disabled, scarred in both his body and his mind. He had saved his pinned-down unit, dodged withering machine-gun fire, crossed a minefield alone and killed nearly 30 men in a two-day stretch.

Now, finally, they are getting the Medal of Honor. They're among 24 mostly Hispanic and Jewish veterans who had been denied the nation's highest combat honor because of prejudice.

If only it were over.

It's not. Similar discrimination continues today.

You should care. No matter who you are. Because no matter who you are or where you stand on that philosophically, it hurts you economically. It costs taxpayers - you - millions. Every year.

We all know that the complexion of our fighting forces, and our nation, is changing. The number of minorities in both is increasing, dramatically and inevitably.

Still, minorities suffer from the same malaise in the military as they do in the civilian world: It's not enough for them to do their best, or even do better than others. The people in power don't recognize them for their successes the same way they do non-Hispanic whites.

It may be unintentional blindness. It may be deliberate disdain. It doesn't matter. The result is the same.

It becomes glaringly evident in the officer ranks. The branch of service doesn't matter. They may wear dress whites, airman's blue or O. D. Green. The overwhelming majority of officers are lily white.

According to the Census Bureau, 63 percent of the people in the United States are non-Hispanic whites. Yet they represent 77.8 percent of officers.

Hispanics, by contrast, are the largest minority group in the country, at 16.9 percent of the population. They account for a mere 6 percent of active officers.

The Department of Defense recognizes that it has a Hispanic retention problem. As any business operator knows, that's expensive. Losing a trained employee means they have to start over teaching a new one.

At least most companies get some payback as they're investing. The workers work as they learn.

In the military, though, new recruits don't really do anything until after they finish basic training. Then comes advanced training. They don't become radio operators, or paratroopers, or computer technicians until they finish weeks or months of education.

Very nearly all of that time, they are nothing but students. They don't "work."

If those recruits leave the service as soon as their hitch is up, the military has to start over again with someone new. Who pays? We do. Taxpayers.

But why do you think so many Hispanics leave the military after only one tour of duty?

At least part of it may be because they don't see any real future there. When they look up the line they don't see very many who look like them.

And they know it's nothing new.

Awarding the Medal of Honor to the 24 mostly Hispanic and Jewish veterans is the final step in a review that began in 1993. The Army commissioned a study to determine why, even though more than 1 million served, not a single African-American who fought in World War II had received the Medal of Honor.

They concluded that seven had been overlooked or outright ignored, simply because they were black.

The discoveries lead to a review of Asian-American servicemen.

And now, finally, a dozen years after Congress ordered the review as part of the Defense Authorization Act of 2002, Latinos and Jews.

Maybe it shouldn't come as a surprise that it took so long. After all, the 22 families on Second Street in Silvis, Ill., sent more men off to fight in World War II and Korea than any other stretch that size. But it took nearly a decade to get the city to rename it Hero Street, and four more years to get it paved. In 1972.

And steadfast supporters have tried for nearly two years to get a Congressional Gold Medal for the mostly Puerto Rican 65th Infantry Regiment. In Korea, the "Borinqueneers" earned 10 Distinguished Service Crosses, nearly 250 Silver Stars, over 600 Bronze Stars, and more than 2,700 Purple Hearts. But, as the House Resolution calling for the medal says, "no Medals of Honor."

Until now. Master Sergeant Juan E. Negron, a Borinqueneer who held his position on a Korean hill and fought off enemy attackers through the night, alone, is among the group of 24 getting them next month.


Maybe after that, the Department of Defense can work on the larger task of fostering real equality in the military, so that Hispanic troops will have the chance to succeed the same as any other. Maybe then they can be looked at fairly for what they do, rather than be overlooked for who they are.