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VA town hall in Utah celebrates diversity and the contributions of veterans of color

U.S. Marine Corps veteran Daniel Torres speaks at the George E. Wahlen Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, July 19, 2019. Torres enlisted in the Marines in 2007 using a false birth certificate. After a deployment in Iraq and more than three years into his military service his superiors were notified of his immigration status. The Marines honorably discharged Torres, and he self-deported back to Mexico where he successfully fought to become a U.S. citizen. Laura Seitz, Deseret News
U.S. Marine Corps veteran Daniel Torres speaks at the George E. Wahlen Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, July 19, 2019. Torres enlisted in the Marines in 2007 using a false birth certificate. After a deployment in Iraq and more than three years into his military service his superiors were notified of his immigration status. The Marines honorably discharged Torres, and he self-deported back to Mexico where he successfully fought to become a U.S. citizen. Laura Seitz, Deseret News
David Monge, minority veterans program coordinator at George E. Wahlen Veterans Affairs Medical Center, speaks at the hospital in Salt Lake City on Friday, July 19, 2019. Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — For many, depictions of American soldiers have come from war films like "Saving Private Ryan" or "Dunkirk."

But for Angela Williams, Veterans Affairs Salt Lake City Health Care System assistant director, they don't always portray the "complete picture."

At a minority veterans town hall, organized at the George E. Wahlen Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Daniel Torres, a veteran and previously undocumented immigrant, shared his journey of obtaining U.S. citizenship.

David Monge, minority veterans program coordinator at George E. Wahlen Veterans Affairs Medical Center, speaks at the hospital in Salt Lake City on Friday, July 19, 2019.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

David Monge, minority veterans program coordinator at George E. Wahlen Veterans Affairs Medical Center, speaks at the hospital in Salt Lake City on Friday, July 19, 2019.

Living in the U.S. without documents and running out of options at 24 years old, Torres enlisted in the Marine Corps with a fake birth certificate.

More than three years into his service and after being deployed to Iraq, his secret was discovered and he ended up being honorably discharged from the military, which led to his self-deportation to Tijuana, Mexico, where he was born.

Years after living in Tijuana, he obtained the help of an American Civil Liberties Union attorney and was eventually granted U.S. citizenship.

"There are so many different cultures that served in the U.S. Armed Forces, and all of them have a unique story to tell," Williams said Friday.

Williams retraced the World War II history of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African American military aviators in the U.S. Army Air Corps; the Navajo code talkers, who figured out the quadrants of Japanese soldiers; and the celebrated 442nd Infantry Regiment combat team, composed of mostly second-generation Japanese American soldiers.

U.S. Marine Corps veteran Daniel Torres speaks at the George E. Wahlen Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, July 19, 2019. Torres enlisted in the Marines in 2007 using a false birth certificate. After a deployment in Iraq and more than three years into his military service his superiors were notified of his immigration status. The Marines honorably discharged Torres, and he self-deported back to Mexico where he successfully fought to become a U.S. citizen.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

U.S. Marine Corps veteran Daniel Torres speaks at the George E. Wahlen Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, July 19, 2019. Torres enlisted in the Marines in 2007 using a false birth certificate. After a deployment in Iraq and more than three years into his military service his superiors were notified of his immigration status. The Marines honorably discharged Torres, and he self-deported back to Mexico where he successfully fought to become a U.S. citizen.

She said the stories are "just a few" of the contributions minority veterans have made.

"These are the unsung heroes, much like yourself, who stepped up to meet the needs of this country," she said. "You may not be in the history books, but you are part of that legacy. You are what has made this country great."

David Monge, a vocational rehab specialist and minority veterans program coordinator at the medical center, said it's a misnomer to call growing populations "minorities," because it reflects the thinking people had of underrepresented populations 50 to 60 years ago.

He said the percentage of female veterans and veterans of color are beginning to reflect the civilian population.

Originally from El Salvador, Monge was a legal U.S. resident when he joined the U.S. Navy, adding that there's been a historical precedence of noncitizens serving in the military.

"That should not mean that others who didn't quite have that status are somehow not worthy of serving in the military, or whatever else we may hear in politics today," he said.

Monge served for four years in the Navy and was mainly stationed in Japan. While serving, he has fond memories of eating Salvadoran food with his crew on a U.S. ship.

He emphasized that regardless of the ethnicity or gender of veterans, "we all wear the same uniform."