Meet 5 Service Members of Hispanic Heritage Making Modern Military History

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?

Here are five modern-day Hispanic American service members who are making military history today. Take a look:

Lt. Gen. Marc H. Sasseville

Photo credit Capt. Cindy Piccirillo Texas Air National Guard

Lt. Gen. 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.”

Lt. Col. Denis Fajardo

Photo credit U.S. Army

Lt. Col. Denis Fajardo receives a guidon during the 244th QM Battalion change of command ceremony.

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 Fidel 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.

Lt. Col. Denis J. Fajardo salutes during the playing of the national anthem. | Photo credit U.S. Army/T. Anthony Bell

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 became 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. Farjado recently transitioned out of this unit and is now attending the Eisenhower School for National Security and Resource Strategy at National Defense University, Fort McNair, Washington, D.C.

Rear Adm. Christina M. Alvarado

Rear Adm. Christina Alvarado | Photo credit US Navy Photo

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, who is now retired, 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 2015 was confirmed by the Senate as a Rear Admiral. Before retiring, she served as the deputy chief for reserve policy and integration for the Navy’s Bureau of Medicine and Surgery.

SEAC Ramón Colón-López

Photo credit DVIDS/Spc. Ashlind House

SEAC Ramón Colón-López.

Air Force Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (SEAC) Ramón Colón-López is a Pararescuemen and the current, most-senior enlisted person in the military.

Colón-López 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 a “PJ”) and was assigned to an Air Forces Special Operations Command (AFSOC) unit.

SEAC Ramón Colón-López. | Photo credit U.S. Army/William Pratt

In 2004, while deployed to Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, his helicopter came under Taliban fire. Despite the attack, Colón-López completed his mission and overran the enemy position to capture Taliban fighters. For his actions on that day, Colón-López was one of the first six airmen to earn the Air Force Combat Action Medal.

Colón-López 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).

Today, he continues to serve as the SEAC and has even traveled on several USO entertainment tours during his time working alongside the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Master Sgt. Leroy A. Petry

President Barack Obama awards the Medal of Honor to Sgt. 1st Class Leroy A. Petry at the White House in Washington, D.C., July 12, 2011. | Photo credit U.S. Army/Spc. David M. Sharp

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.

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 toward 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.

-This story was originally published in 2019. It has been updated for 2021.

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