Defense Department marks, honors National Hispanic Heritage Month

National Hispanic Heritage Month runs Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, and the Defense Department is at the forefront of marking this important observance.

It’s a time to reflect on the contributions and sacrifices Hispanics have made to the United States, not just in the military, but in all walks of life.

A significant number of Hispanics have served in all of the nation’s wars beginning with the Revolutionary War.

Sixty-one service members of Hispanic or Latino heritage have been awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest medal for valor. Two were sailors, 13 Marines and 46 soldiers.

Their stories of heroism are many. Here are two:

Army Pvt. Marcelino Serna, shown in a 1919 newspaper drawing. (Library of Congress photograph)

Marcelino Serna emigrated from Mexico to Texas in 1916. Although he was a Mexican citizen, he enlisted in the U.S. Army when World War I started April 2017. His request to enlist was granted and he was later shipped with other soldiers to the battlefields of France.
Serna’s unit, Company B, 355th Infantry Regiment, 89th Division, was engaged in heavy fighting in the Meuse-Argonne region, Sept. 12, 1918.
During that day, Serna, a private, wounded a German sniper with his Enfield rifle and then advanced to an enemy trench where he threw three grenades, resulting in the death of 26 enemy combantants and the capture of 24.
On Nov. 7, 1918, Serna was wounded in both legs by sniper fire. Fighting ended four days later on Nov. 11, when the armistice was declared. 
During his recovery, Army Gen. John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, pinned a Distinguished Service Cross to his uniform. He was the first Hispanic American to receive the DSC, the second highest medal for valor. 
Ferdinand Foch, the supreme commander of the allied forces, awarded Serna the French Croix de Guerre for bravery.
In 1924, Serna became a U.S. citizen and settled in El Paso, where he died in 1992 at the age of 95.
On Sept. 29, 2016, the United States designated the Customs and Border Protection Port of Entry at Tornillo, Texas, as the “Marcelino Serna Port of Entry.”

Army Pvt. David B. Barkley Cantu, shown in an undated photo. (Army photographs)

Army Pvt. David B. Barkley Cantu, also served in the 89th Division in France during World War I and was Hispanic.
On Nov. 9, 1918, he and another soldier volunteered to swim across the Meuse River near Pouilly-sur-Meuse to get behind German lines and gather information about troop strength. On his return trip, he got cramps while swimming and drowned. The other soldier made it back to his unit and provided the commander with the intelligence the two had gathered.
For his bravery, Cantu was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. Also, France awarded him the Croix de Guerre, and Italy the Croce al Merito di Guerra.

National Hispanic Heritage Month
Hispanic Heritage Month began as Hispanic Heritage Week in 1968 when President Lyndon Johnson signed the observance into law. 

National Hispanic Heritage Month was first proclaimed by President George H. W. Bush in 1989.

The Sept. 15 start of the heritage month is significant because it is the anniversary of independence for the Latin American countries of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. Mexico and Chile celebrate their independence days on Sept. 16 and Sept. 18, respectively. Also, Columbus Day or Día de la Raza, which is Oct. 12, falls within this 30 day period.

Those who claim to be Latino or Hispanic make up 17.6 percent of the active duty force, numbering 235,972 as of July 2021, according to the Defense Manpower Data Center. 

The 2020 U.S. Census Bureau report indicated that Hispanics or Latinos make up 18.7 percent of the total U.S. population. 

The Hispanic or Latino population was 62.1 million in 2020. The Hispanic or Latino population grew 23 percent between 2010 and 2020, according to the Census Bureau.

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