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President Obama Honors Minority Veterans, Now They Need Better Opportunities at Home

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President Obama presented the Medal of Honor to 24 minority veterans last week whose actions had long gone unrecognized because of their ethnicity. Watching the ceremony, I was reminded of how jarring my own combat experience was, and of the even more discouraging reality that many Latino veterans face when they come home.

That ceremony reminded me that while the military teaches each soldier that we're of equal value to our unit, we don't receive the same treatment when we leave active duty and become veterans. And as a Latino veteran, I have seen firsthand how the sacrifice of our community too often has gone unnoticed and the needs of Latino veterans have been overlooked.

During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, military recruiters turned to our community and we responded in great numbers. The Latino enlistment rate grew dramatically in the early years of the war and, by 2004, Latinos made up 12.1 percent of the U.S. Army. Unfortunately, the eagerness on the part of Latinos to join the military was not always reciprocated by the service branches we joined.

A study conducted in 2004 showed that one-fifth of Hispanic enlisted soldiers reported discrimination of some type. And many of the undocumented Latinos who were willing to fight for their adopted country faced deportation when they returned. The fact alone that military service can prompt deportation -- no matter a person's background or status -- is a black eye for our nation of immigrants.

Military service has always been one of the most effective vehicles for economic advancement in this country. The GI Bill alone stands as one of the most successful education incentives ever created. But when you look at the economic disparity between minority veterans and their white counterparts, it's clear that we still have a long way to go.

Among the veterans who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, my war, the unemployment rate for minorities is dramatically higher than that of our white counterparts. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 7 percent of the Latino veterans are unemployed, compared to 6.4 percent for white veterans. The numbers are worse for our youngest veterans, as Latinos who served in Iraq or Afghanistan have an unemployment rate of 10 percent.

Latino veterans who are employed consistently earn less than white veterans. For Latino veterans, the median personal income is $31,470. For white veterans, it's $35,000.

I recognize there are broader economic and social issues that impact these statistics. But to me it demonstrates the same dichotomy that was so clear in the President's presentation this week -- Latinos and other minorities who serve are being asked to make the same sacrifice as every one else, but don't get the same recognition or access to opportunities for their service.

Latinos have a proud and distinguished tradition of volunteering to serve and standing out in combat. And I am enormously grateful that President Obama is looking to make sure minority soldiers get the same recognition for their valor that any other soldier would. But if we're going to ask minority soldiers to risk their lives in the same way as any other American, we should guarantee they have the same opportunities to succeed when they get home.