Latinos in the Military, 1946–Present

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Latino soldiers—whether of U.S., foreign, or dual nationality—have long played a key role in America's wars, and this has been no less true of the post-World War II era. Nine Mexican-American soldiers and one Puerto Rican were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor during the Korean conflict. For the Vietnam War, the figures were thirteen and two respectively. These awards represent the highest proportion of Medals of Honor awarded to any U.S. ethnic minority.

In 1991, approximately 20,000 Latinos participated in Operation Desert Storm. Latinos constituted about 10 percent of the approximately 135,000 U.S. forces based in Iraq following the renewed conflict of 2003. However, they were about 20 percent of U.S. Marines, the force that led the assault on Baghdad and that has traditionally faced the highest risk of death and injury.

In the 1980s and 1990s, increased attention was paid to Latino recruitment into the armed forces. In part, this reflects Latinos' status as the fastest-growing demographic group in the United States and the fact that they made up a lower proportion of the armed forces (8.7 percent) than of the population as a whole (11.3 percent) in 2002; it also reflects the fact that Latinos constitute 13.3 percent of the key eighteen-to-forty-four age group that recruiters target. Recruitment strategies have emphasized comparatively good salaries and funding for education, increasing the appeal of military service to a group that ranks below the U.S. average in both income and educational attainment.

A total of 122,500 soldiers of Latino origin were enlisted in the U.S. army as of May 2002. By 2050, it is estimated that one of every four Americans will be Latino, further bolstering the importance of this demographic for military recruiters. Highlighting the growing significance of Latinos to the military, in July 1998 President Bill Clinton appointed Louis Caldera as the first-ever Latino first secretary of the army.

A controversial phenomenon deriving from the efforts to recruit more Latinos is that of the so-called green-card soldier. It is a common misconception that foreign nationals can acquire U.S. citizenship merely by joining the U.S. armed forces. However, for foreign nationals who are legal residents of the United States the naturalization process can be greatly speeded up through military enrolment. In July 2002, President George W. Bush announced that resident but noncitizen soldiers would be eligible for fast-track naturalization, achieving in a few months what normally required several years.

The desire for naturalization was apparently key for the many Latino soldiers who fought and died in the 2003 Iraq War and the subsequent military occupation. The first U.S. soldier killed in the war, José Gutiérrez, was a Guatemalan immigrant. Another early casualty was an undocumented Mexican immigrant, José Angel Garibay. Both Gutiérrez and Angel Garibay were posthumously granted U.S. citizenship.

As other immigrants have done in the past, Latinos have used the military as a way of gaining citizenship, as a means of social and economic mobility, and as an expression of patriotism for their adopted country.


Dominguez, Gil. They Answered the Call: Latinos in the Vietnam War. Frederick, MD: PublishAmerica, 2004.

Mariscal, George, ed. Aztlan and Viet Nam: Chicano and Chicana Experiences of the War. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

Trujillo, Charley, ed. Soldados: Chicanos in Viet Nam. San Jose, CA: Chusma House, 1990.

Internet Resources

"Hispanic Americans in the Korean War." United States Army. Available from <>.

"Hispanic Medal of Honor Recipients." United States Army. Available from <>.

Adam Jones

See also:Multiculturalism and Cold War; Race and Military.