Recent U.S. Census data confirms a fact of life for San Diego: Hispanics, once considered a "minority," now number nearly 30 percent of the population -- a "major minority." Those numbers are growing. As the second-largest city in California, San Diego has seen a 32 percent increase in the numbers of Hispanics since 2000.
The U.S. military today reflects these demographics, especially in San Diego, home to the largest naval fleet on the West Coast. The Pew Hispanic Center reported that the Hispanic military population of more than 122,000 now represents 11 percent of the entire U.S. military.
Hispanic Americans have a proud legacy of U.S. military service, dating to the American Revolution when Gen. Bernardo de Gálvez defeated British forces in Alabama and Florida to ensure safe passage for Gen. George Washington. That legacy of service continues. The highest U.S. military decoration, the Medal of Honor, has been awarded to 43 soldiers of Hispanic heritage, including Capt. Humbert Roque Versace, who was posthumously bestowed this honor in 2002 for his courage during the Vietnam War.
In the last decade, hundreds of Latino military members have given their lives in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. But these brave men and women are not the only ones who have borne the heavy burden of protecting our country. Their families also have sacrificed. And because the Hispanic community has been disproportionately impacted by the economic downturn, many Hispanic military families are suffering. Unfortunately, communities of color in the U.S. continue to lag in areas of education and employment, and this presents steep challenges for military members and their families as they cycle out of active duty.
As grateful Americans, we must work to find ways to make life a little easier for families with loved ones overseas or for soldiers making the difficult transition back to civilian life. These families need a strong support network in order to deal successfully with everyday strains and sacrifices -- frequent base rotations, long deployments of spouses and parents, and the ever-present anxiety over a family member's safety.
Building on this sentiment, the White House recently launched a comprehensive national campaign, the Joining Forces initiative, that has begun to mobilize all sectors of society -- public, corporate and individuals -- to find new ways of collaborating so that we can address the real needs of military families.
Spearheaded by first lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, the military families initiative is based upon the premise that although only 1 percent of Americans are fighting our wars, we need 100 percent of Americans to get behind them and offer support. It's designed to build bridges between community-based organizations, corporations and federal agencies so that we can best leverage all resources for the task.
Accordingly, the initiative aims to bring attention to the unique needs and strength of America's military families and to ensure that active service members, veterans and their families are supported in the workplace, in the schools and in their communities.
The military families initiative highlights issues of special importance to military families across the country: unemployment, underachievement in school (military kids often fall behind with frequent base rotations), and other physical and emotional problems. The White House already has enlisted the support of groups such as the Chamber of Commerce (which will host hiring fairs) and the YMCA (which will offer free summer camp in 35 states to kids of military families). The goal is to access all kinds of new resources to help veterans make the transition from military to civilian careers, locate and obtain housing options, and deal with painful psychological issues.
Many Latino organizations including the Hispanic War Veterans of America, the Society of Hispanic Veterans and the American GI Forum are specifically focused on improving the lives of Hispanic veterans and families of active service members -- and these programs are invaluable.
We can all do our part to encourage others to join in. The White House has set up a website, joiningforces.gov. New media is being enlisted as well to help families share their stories, access useful resources and network. The AOL "Jobs" hub, jobs.aol.com/hub/militaryfamilies, offers tips, stories and networking resources.
We can all pitch in by doing something simple, like writing to a family and expressing our gratitude, or by supporting nonprofit groups which are assisting military families. Private companies can help, whether by highlighting employment opportunities for vets or by making the public more aware of the challenges they face, or by acknowledging the sacrifices of their families.
Let's get behind our military members and their families and offer our thanks for the risks they take and sacrifices they make to preserve all of our freedoms.
This post was originally published by Sign on San Diego.
Ferrer is general manager of AOL Latino, a bilingual web portal providing original programming and coverage of events and issues to the U.S. Hispanic community.