Members of the Fort Drum community gathered at the Commons to celebrate the rich heritage of Hispanic Americans during a luncheon hosted by 2nd Brigade Combat Team.
National Hispanic American Heritage Month is observed from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 each year by celebrating the histories, cultures and contributions of American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America.
The timing of the observation is significant, as several countries in these regions celebrate their respective independence days during this period.
No matter which country Hispanic people hail from, guest speaker Xaymara Morales said that these distinct cultures are united by three main values — devotion to family, deeply-rooted beliefs and the love of good food.
Morales, an investigator with the New York State Police, said she was proud — and humbled — to have an opportunity to speak at Fort Drum, where she has previously served both on active-duty status and as a Department of Defense Civilian.
“If you had told me when I first arrived here, ’18 years from now you will have an opportunity to present to the commanding general and the senior leaders of the 10th Mountain Division,’ I never would have believed it,” she said.
Morales first came to Fort Drum in 1999 when she was stationed with the 10th Military Police Company.
When she arrived at the installation on a brutally cold winter evening, she said she felt like giving up, but she thought of how hard her single mother had worked to provide for her and her brother while they were growing up, and she was determined to persevere.
“On that January day, I had to dig deep,” she said. “There are so many people in our family and our culture and our heritage that have paved the way for us. It is important — and our duty — to ensure that we continue to work hard behind them, to leave a legacy for those who are coming behind us.”
Morales not only survived the winter, she went on to challenge herself by taking on several additional roles while serving on the installation.
When Fort Drum officials announced that women would be allowed to serve on special reaction teams — the equivalent of a Special Weapons and Tactics team — one of her female friends convinced her to try out.
The two showed up on Day One of the weeklong tryouts to find that they were the only two women in a room full of men. Morales said that she was determined to prove her mettle — especially to the tough team leader who was running the tryouts.
To make the team, candidates had to overcome a series of mentally and physically challenging obstacles. During her final task — a run across a rutted and rough field — Morales fractured her ankle. She recalled the tough team leader’s question to her — “are you going to go home and call your mom and complain?”
“I was 20 meters from the end, and I was not going to quit,” she recalled. “In our culture, all you have to do is tell me once — tell me I can’t do it — and I will prove you wrong. I finished that run and I got a slot. I became not only an entry-level SWAT team member, but I went back and became the SWAT sniper team leader.”
After serving on active-duty status for five years, Morales separated from the military. She was hired as a detective within Fort Drum’s Directorate of Emergency Services, where she served until joining the New York State Police in 2007.
She said that from the tough team leader at special reaction team tryouts — who is now her husband — to mentor and former DES director, Greg Ferguson, to the many Soldiers and Civilians with whom she has served over the years, she has been fortunate to have been surrounded by individuals who supported and challenged her along the way.
“Make sure you acknowledge those that are beside you — pushing you forward — all the time,” she said. “There were many times that I wanted to quit, but somebody pivotal in my career field or in my personal life was pushing me forward.”
After Morales’ remarks, attendees were treated to special performances provided by “Latin Flava,” a dance group led by Staff Sgt. Junior Ramirez from the 10th Mountain Light Fighters School. They were then invited to sample a menu of Hispanic foods and enjoy a time of fun and fellowship.