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OPINION

There should be more Hispanics in the senior ranks

By WILLIAM D. RODRIGUEZ | Special to Stars and Stripes | Published: June 24, 2020

The continuing focus on diversity and inclusion has become more of a “race issue” and a “gender issue” than an “ethnicity issue.” The Hispanic American population has grown to be the largest minority group in this country, and yet, comparatively speaking, our armed forces still do not reflect “the face of the nation” with regard to the Hispanic American population. This is particularly true in the flag and general officer, senior officer and senior enlisted ranks. This is not diversity and inclusion.

As you will remember, 45 years ago the emphasis to increase the number of African Americans in key colleges, universities and other educational and business institutions was through affirmative action and quota control. This program, which was deemed as successful, had its flaws. It had very little, if any, regard for any ethnic community, and there was little concern for meritocracy.

Of note, however, the program eventually produced a significant number of African American flag and general officers. These senior officers then served as examples and potential mentors to those who came behind them. Similar to what was done for African Americans over 45 years ago, there should be a renewed emphasis and focus on the ethnic communities, specifically, the Hispanic American community. Furthermore, there should be an in-depth analysis of the demographics of Hispanic Americans in the armed forces and specifically in its senior ranks, and the Department of Defense and the services should take an approach toward tracking and mentoring Hispanic Americans in order to advocate for them, ensure they are fully qualified for promotion into the senior ranks of the armed forces, and are given a fair and objective opportunity for promotion without prejudice or discrimination.

There have been a number of diversity reports and articles published throughout the years, and they have been nothing but a current statistical and demographic update of Hispanic Americans in the armed forces. Furthermore, the reports have fallen on “deaf ears.” Moreover, the resulting diversity and inclusion policies generated within DOD have become nothing more than “shelfware” with very little action taken based on those policies. This has been going on for four decades now, and the demographic data proves my point.

The issues concerning prejudice, discrimination, diversity and inclusion will probably not go away in my lifetime. However, the issue concerning the extremely low number of Hispanic Americans in the senior ranks is the result of a total lack of leadership awareness within our armed forces. If we look toward our military leaders for closer mentoring of Hispanic Americans, strive for the highest meritocracy and push for positions of the highest visibility for Hispanic Americans, then we might make some well-founded headway. We need to examine who is coming up in the ranks, who is in zone for O-6, O-7 and O-8, and we need to strongly advocate for them. DOD and the respective services should analyze the reasons why highly qualified Hispanic Americans were not promoted, understand why others were promoted — including possible bias, prejudice and discrimination — and then present those facts to the powers that be. I am sure that this can be done given the confidentiality of the deliberations of the promotion boards.

I find it difficult to believe that, of all the highly qualified Hispanic Americans who are serving at the O-6 level in our armed forces, very few, if any, meet the requirements of the precepts for the flag and general officer promotion boards. There are a number of O-6s whose records and performance in tough leadership positions show that they are head and shoulders above their peers, that they meet the requirements of the promotion board precepts, and yet, they are not selected for flag or general officer. There is no question that the importance of meritocracy, i.e. becoming the best qualified candidate for promotion and for selection to higher positions of leadership, rather than the importance of any racial, ethnic or diversity label, is understood in most organizations. However, when it is time to be looked at for promotion, they are not promoted. Is it an issue of subjectivity, or objectivity, on the particular promotion board? Are we seeing unconscious discrimination and bias at the more senior promotion boards?

Finally, the retention concerns of senior Hispanic American officers and enlisted, and why the promotion zone pools contain a small number, if any, of Hispanic Americans should be analyzed and brought to the forefront. Within the sea services, we are seeing more and more Hispanic American officers and enlisted taking advantage of retirement at their first opportunity. When I was president of Association of Naval Services Officers (2011-19), I saw many Hispanic American officers within the sea services at the O-4 and O-5 ranks, and many enlisted at the E-6 and above ranks, retire at the 20-year mark. I discovered that this was the time when their children were graduating from high school; that they were tired of longer deployments that were straining the family nucleus; that they did not want to contend with the stress of budget issues that they saw those in higher ranks having to deal with on a daily basis; and that they were being offered lucrative opportunities in the private sector. This dilemma is reducing the pool of qualified Hispanic American officers and enlisted who could possibly be promoted into the higher ranks and therefore help the sea services in particular reflect the “leadership face of the nation” in the senior officer and enlisted ranks. We must work on retaining our best qualified Hispanic Americans past their 20-year point.

I believe that the armed forces recognize that the recruitment of Hispanic men and women is no longer a matter of equity, but rather a significant necessity given the rapid growth of this segment of the population. I also believe, as do many senior officers and enlisted leaders, that we will be better served by continuing to eliminate the racial, ethnic and diversity labels.

Nevertheless, we must continue to exhibit the inherent leadership qualities in continuing to promote the importance of diversity and inclusion. Further, Hispanic Veterans Leadership Alliance and other Hispanic-oriented professional groups must continue to be leadership role models for their subordinates, their peers and their seniors alike.

William D. Rodriguez, a retired U.S. Navy rear admiral, is a Hispanic Veterans Leadership Alliance board member and past president of the Association of Naval Services Officers.