SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (ABC4 News) – A first-generation Mexican American serving in the United States Army shares his story and how the Army has impacted his life.

“I am a first-generation American,” said Raphael Vasquez. “I am the son of a man who decided to come here to work with his hands. My mother was a seamstress. They got together, they said, ‘You know, this place, this country is our home.’”

At the age of 17, Vasquez was recruited by Army recruiter Manuel Sanchez.

“He told me it was possible,” he said. “And being a role model matters. Seeing somebody that looks like you gives people an opportunity to say, ‘Well if that guy did it, I know I can do it.’”

Vasquez said Sanchez was the first person who looked or sounded like him and was wearing the Army’s uniform.

“He was so passionate about the Army, so passionate about all the opportunities, and he said to me, ‘You know, your life can be more than this 50-mile radius that you live in now. There is more to the world.”

Having now served 30 years in the Army, Vasquez is a lieutenant colonel commanding a battalion, that stretches from Las Vegas to the Canadian border.

“I am commanding a battalion of over 300 people in a vast region in the middle of America – the Mountain West region,” he said. “I mean, if you’re talking about the American dream, I think that could qualify as such.”

With thousands of people serving in the Army, Vasquez said people come from diverse backgrounds.

“The strength of our Army is our diversity,” he said.

And his background too, helping to create a conversation about diversity and culture – with now Army recruits.

“The conversation about diversity and culture can be very complicated. But I think it’s important to have,” he said. “It’s important to have a conversation and say, ‘Hey look, I look like you, I sound like you and I serve your nation.’”

In his years of service, Vasquez said his perspective has been enriched by others.

“There is value in seeing the world and understanding other people’s perspective,” he said. “When you do that, you create a space to live in those shoes, to live in that position and to say, ‘OK. Although I may not agree, I understand it.’ And understanding somebody else’s different point of view is a huge step in healing together as a society, as a nation, as a community.”

Opportunity, service, learning, and friendship have come during his years in the Army. And Vasquez said he’s grateful for his parents’ hard work and sacrifice, that helped him get to where he is today.

“That is the thing I’m most proud of is their legacy, living through me – of their hard work – and now I represent them and the United States Army,” he said.

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