By Mike Case and Danielle DeSimone
Hispanic Americans have been making U.S. military history for generations. But what about the 21st century trailblazers serving in the Armed Forces today?
For Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs from September 15 – October 15, we took a moment to highlight five modern-day Hispanic American service members who are making modern military history. Take a look:
Marc H. Sasseville
Even though Lt. Gen. Marc H. (“Sass”) Sasseville is the first Hispanic American to be named Commander of the 113th Wing, District of Columbia Air National Guard, he is best known for being one of four pilots given the mission of finding and destroying United Airlines Flight 93 on September 11, 2001.
On the morning of September 11, the White House already knew that Flight 93 was lost to hijackers and recognized the need to minimize the death toll as much as possible. Authorization was given for the plane to be taken down by any means necessary.
Then-Lt. Col. Sasseville, who is of Puerto Rican descent, was given the order alongside his rookie lieutenant Heather (“Lucky”) Penney. However, their F-16 fighter jets at Joint Base Andrews were loaded with only dummy ammunition after a recent training mission. Because of the urgency of the situation, Sasseville and Penney had to take off immediately without real ammunition – so the only way to take down the hijacked plane would have been by ramming it with their own jets.
It was essentially a suicide mission, but Sasseville climbed into the cockpit without a second thought, knowing that if they succeeded, neither would be going home that night.
“I’ll take the cockpit,” Sasseville told Penney, referring to their plan to ram the plane with their jets. “I’ll take the tail,” Penney responded.
However, because of the bravery of the passengers onboard Flight 93, Sasseville and his wingman never found the plane. As the world now knows, the passengers of Flight 93 fought for control of the plane and, in the struggle, crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. Sasseville would go on to serve in Operation Iraqi Freedom, among many other assignments and awards, and is still in the Air Force today.
When recalling his willingness to sacrifice himself in an interview in 2016, the commander said, “it’s one of those greater good philosophies we learned at the academy…to give one life to save hundreds of others, especially innocents, and to potentially enable the country to avoid a catastrophe.”
As for the passengers of Flight 93, “those are the real heroes.”
Even before he enlisted in the Army, Lt. Col. Denis Fajardo had an eventful life with more than a few challenges along the way. Fajardo’s grandfather was a political prisoner in Cuba under Castro and, after being granted political visas, his family arrived in the U.S. as refugees in 1980 as part of the Mariel Boat Lift.
Eventually, Fajardo decided to enlist in the U.S. Army. His original plan was to enlist for four years, get out and use his experience to start a career in law enforcement. However, today, almost 30 years later, Lt. Col. Denis Fajardo is still serving his country.
Six years after enlisting, Fajardo earned his commission as an officer and decided to attend Ranger School, a goal he had set for himself after completing his Advanced Infantry Training (AIT). Lt. Col Fajardo recalls that during Ranger School, “I had eaten the one MRE we were issued for the day. I looked down and saw an ant walking away with a big crumb of pound cake. I was so hungry, I grabbed the crumb and the ant wouldn’t let go. I didn’t hesitate. I just ate it. I remember thinking it was dessert and protein.”
Over the years, Fajardo worked his way through the ranks and is now the commander of the same training battalion he joined as an enlisted soldier all those years ago. He credits his success to mentors and leaders in the Army who advised and guided him on his path. Their leadership is what has helped define how he leads and advises the soldiers he commands.
Christina M. Alvarado
Rear Adm. Christina M. “Tina” Alvarado’s favorite saying is, “If you see a turtle sitting on a fence post, one thing is for sure, he didn’t get there by himself.”
Alvarado can relate a lot to these words of wisdom. The native North Carolinian – and first nurse to command Navy Expeditionary Medical Facility Dallas One – credits her success in the military and life to many others who preceded her, including her grandmother, who was a Mexican American immigrant that became one of the first women to work as a Congressional staffer.
“Her role paved the way for many others…all women today come into the world on the shoulders of the ones who came before them,” Alvarado said.
Alvarado worked as a critical care nurse and in health policy before deciding to join the Navy Reserves. She was called to active duty in 1990-1991 for Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm and later deployed to Afghanistan in 2002 for Operations Noble Eagle and Enduring Freedom. In 2011, Alvarado took command of Navy Expeditionary Medical Facility Dallas One and in 201 was confirmed by the Senate as a Rear Admiral. Currently, she is the deputy chief for reserve policy and integration for the Navy’s Bureau of Medicine and Surgery.
Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Ramon Colon-Lopez is a Pararescuemen and the current command senior enlisted leader at the headquarters of U.S. Africa Command.
Colon-Lopez enlisted in the Air Force in 1990 and was deployed during the Gulf War. In 1996, he completed training as an elite Air Force Pararescuemen (also known as PJ’s) and was assigned to an Air Forces Special Operations Command (AFSOC) unit.
In 2004, while deployed to Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, his helicopter came under Taliban fire. Despite the attack, Colon-Lopez completed his mission and overran the enemy position to capture Taliban fighters. For his actions on that day, Colon-Lopez was one of the first six airmen to earn the Air Force Combat Action Medal.
Colon-Lopez went on to serve in many commands and, in 2013, was cited as an example in the Air Force’s Professional Development Guide which is studied by Air Force members working to be promoted to Staff, Tech, or Master Sergeant (E-5 to E-7).
Leroy A. Petry
In 2009, now-retired Master Sgt. Leroy A. Petry was a staff sergeant with the Army Rangers when he undertook heroic actions that earned him the Medal of Honor. He is only the second living recipient of the award.
At the time, Petry, a Mexican American from New Mexico, was deployed to Afghanistan and was clearing a building with his team when they came under enemy fire. Petry was shot in both legs and took cover with his fellow Ranger, Sgt. Daniel Higgins. As the pair attempted to receive medical attention from another Ranger, an enemy fighter threw a grenade that landed right in front of them.
Without thinking, Petry – already wounded – picked up the grenade and threw it back towards the enemy, away from his fellow injured Rangers. As he threw it, the grenade detonated and destroyed his right hand. Without Petry’s unselfish and brave sacrifice, it is likely that the other two soldiers with him would have died.
After receiving medical treatment and a prosthetic arm, Petry returned to duty and eventually retired in 2014 after nearly 15 years of service, to include two tours to Iraq and six to Afghanistan.
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