Some of the greatest memories I have as a child was seeing my dad come through the door after a long day at work. He would walk in wearing his camouflaged uniform with patches and newly shined boots. His hair would be perfectly cut and his face freshly shaven -- he always looked like G.I. Joe mixed with GQ. You could tell he was exhausted when he came home, but it was overshadowed by humbleness and pride. The best example I can give is someone who has just completed a marathon but willing to run an extra 10 miles without complaining.
As a kid I never fully understood what it meant for someone to wear a uniform or why someone would serve their country. It's not that I didn't respect it, I just didn't know why it was important.
A product of 23 years in the Army my dad would never tire explaining to us the importance of valor, service, the flag and the uniform. When my brother, sister and I would start with the "why this and why that" as it pertained to his medals and patches he'd reply with total patience and close with a story of bravery -- sometimes his own, but mostly of others who served before him or with him.
I look back at my life - moving from school to school, from state to state and from country to country, and while most people assume I missed out on friends and extracurricular activities I see just how rich and blessed my life was.
Sure we didn't have the most traditional of upbringings, but we were proud of the work my dad was doing to serve our country and to keep us safe.
My story isn't all that unique. There are thousands and thousands of kids out there who are just as proud of their parents serving in the military. What is unique about my story is that this sort of service was deep-rooted into our very culture. To be Latino means to serve. You serve your country, your church, your friends and your family. It's loyalty. A loyalty that cannot be faked or bribed. Pure and unconditional loyalty for the country that has afforded you and your family so many opportunities.
Sadly I no longer have my father in my life as he passed away nearly 14 years ago. And while I miss him more than anything in the world, I feel very blessed knowing that there is a new generation of Latino servicemen and women coming up through the ranks.
Selfishly I have a soft spot for Latinos who serve because I see in them what I saw in my dad - pride and commitment. It warms my heart to hear Latino military personnel share their stories. I see a little bit of my dad in each of them.
I have a very good friend, Mark Cardenas, who is all of 20-something years old who has already given eight years of his life to the U.S. Army and has served in Iraq. His passion for community service is like no other. When he was in Iraq he saw firsthand the problems a nation faced when it didn't care for its most vulnerable citizens. Basic services such as education, sanitation, and jobs all fallen by the wayside. He constantly speaks of how lucky we all are to live in a country where human services are held in high regard. In Iraq his mission was to share himself selflessly with those in need and he did just that.
Mark continues to share himself. Upon discharge and returning to Arizona he immediately enlisted in the Army National Guard and began to spend countless hours mentoring youth and volunteering for several nonprofits. Mark is the first to arrive when you need him and the last to leave. I suppose it makes perfect sense now that Mark is seeking public office. A candidate for the Arizona House of Representatives, Mark has yet to quench his thirst for service. No one knows what he saw or what he battled in Iraq - because as a loyal servant to his country and his culture he keeps those cards close to his chest - but one thing is for sure, he is still fighting.
This military kid wants to thank Mark for continuing our legacy of service. When my dad shared stories of those that served before him and with him he never left out those that would serve after him.