Listen, Learn, Lead

I’m an American Naval Officer but I’m also Latino. I was raised in Puerto Rico by my single, tough-as-nails mother whose perseverance in the face of adversity served as a potent amplifier of the power of my Latino heritage.

Growing up, we didn’t have much; pennies to rub together were often hard to find. Nevertheless, I was heavily influenced by my hard-working, simple, and wise “jibaro” of a grandfather---my abuelo. He taught me all I needed to know to succeed. Abuelo’s lessons are summarized in three simple but powerful words: Listen, Learn, and Lead.

My grandfather taught me that for a Latino, anything is possible as long as I earned my way. He taught me to Listen to the world around me, to Learn how it impacts me and how I can best contribute, and to Lead in building a brighter future for myself, my family, and all of us - Latino or not.

Growing up, I learned Latino traditions are rich, colorful, defined by passionate people, and worth sharing. To echo Cuban poet Jose Marti, “that culture, which makes talent shine, is not completely ours, nor can we place it solely at our disposal. Rather, it belongs mainly to our country, which gave it to us, and to humanity, from which we receive it as a birthright.”

Indeed, Latino culture makes life spicy! In fact, I believe Latino culture is to the world what jalapeños are to salsa. And like we do with grandma’s recipes, we must preserve it, be proud of it, and share it.

But, just as we must measure how much heat goes into salsa, so too must Latinos balance cultural pride and passion with awareness of our surroundings. We must blend into our environment, define it, succeed against all odds, and make a difference wherever we go.

Over the last two decades, I’ve travelled around the globe and encountered the lively Latino spirit wherever I go. For instance, in 2009 I was assigned to NATO in Belgium. My arrival was made memorable not by Belgian waffles or beer as expected, but by large posters advertising salsa night. In just a few hours I was dancing to the music of Venezuela’s Oscar de Leon. Surprisingly, the dancers didn’t speak Spanish or even English. They spoke French---but we danced salsa with verve and understood each other just fine!

My experience underscored how widely Latino culture has spread. It’s global. It’s powerful. It’s likewise indicative of how Latinos can influence people and events around the globe.

I’ve listened to the voices of my heritage and have learned that Latino culture is everywhere and tightly woven into the tapestry of who, as Americans, we are. That’s no accident. The Latino way of life is everywhere because Latinos are everywhere, making that tapestry much more colorful and adding spice to life.

Now, just as jalapeños have some heat in them, Latinos have a reputation for being hot blooded. We are passionate people. We fight. We lead!

We Latinos have earned our place in history by fighting for freedom and the American way of life. In fact, the first shots of the First World War were fired by a feisty Puerto Rican Lieutenant of the U.S. Army’s 65th Infantry Division in San Juan.

During WWII that same division fought from Casablanca in North Africa to Berlin. In Korea, General MacArthur said “The Puerto Ricans forming the ranks of the gallant 65th are writing a brilliant record of achievement in battle. I wish we might have many more like them.” In Vietnam, Latinos, like Alfred Rascon, who earned the Medal of Honor, distinguished themselves in battle. And today we see the same courage and commitment in the fields of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Undeniably, Latinos have a brilliant record of leading in war and peace. Names like David Barkley, Cesar Chavez, Roberto Goizueta, Antonia Coello, Joan Baez, Marco Rubio, and many more prove that our footsteps and memories are found anywhere our Nation calls us to serve – be that in the fields of strife, for civil rights, in business, medicine, music, politics, any field.

We Latinos leave our mark every day. We must strive for new heights. We must surmount all obstacles - be they physical, linguistic, economic, educational, or legal - and do so with humility and the bigger picture in mind.

When I left Puerto Rico, I cast my gaze forward and haven’t looked back. I didn’t need to. ‘Home’ is in my heart and I take it wherever I go. My heritage is a gift and an asset to our Nation. My culture makes my talents shine and helps me – to borrow an old Army slogan – be all that I can be.

As our Latino influence grows, we must passionately embrace our heritage, draw strength from it, and, as my grandfather taught me, we must Listen, Learn, and Lead. We must earn our bright future, share it, and spice it up!

I am truly blessed, both because of who I am and where I came from. I’m a proud Latino, who Listened intently, Learned what I needed to contribute, and with hard work and a positive vision, today I Lead a U.S. Navy Destroyer. I am (Latino) American. For me, anything is possible.

Commander Richard E. Lebron is the Executive Officer of the USS Benfold.


Relationships with the Latino Community

Last April, the Department of Defense published its Strategic Plan for Diversity and Inclusion. The Plan stems from a Presidential Executive Order (13583) that directed executive departments and agencies to “develop and implement a more comprehensive, integrated, and strategic focus on diversity and inclusion as a key component of their human resources strategies.” In the ensuing months, the Department worked extremely hard to not only publish a plan, but also to ensure that the plan leads to action and results. A key section of the Plan centers on establishing and expanding relationships with communities.

In the early 2000s, diversity outreach was limited. The military Services had partnerships with a few activities, particularly those that supported the career development and growth of civilian employees. The Office of Diversity Management and Equal Opportunity (ODMEO) under the Secretary of Defense led the military Services to take a strategic approach to increasing the diversity pipeline. So we learned of and engaged organizations that could expose DoD military and civilian careers prospects to minority youth. Later, as it was evident that minorities and women were severely underrepresented in the technical fields, ODMEO added a focus on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) to its diversity outreach now engaging human resource and technology/science equities in the diversity outreach package. Interestingly today, those organizations that once only existed to develop/train government employees, today have youth components in their portfolios and most have a STEM/stay-in-school message to minority youth. ODMEO has worked with the Services to share best practices on outreach engagement and over the decade since, particularly in the last couple of years, outreach has expanded dramatically.

However, we can and must do more. For example, my office recently joined with LATINO Magazine to participate in the series of AHORA Student Days across the country over this next year. Through these and other events, we help introduce youth to a wealth of opportunities in science and engineering fields. The Department is beginning and growing a variety of other initiatives to strengthen our relationship with the Hispanic community even more.

First, in conjunction with local community relations offices, we are hosting more tours of facilities and installations, particularly with facilities that you may not even know exist near your community. Pamphlets and commercials serve well to convey many aspects of your military, but nothing can take the place of being on an aircraft, in a lab or under the ocean.

We are also working with Pentagon and local installation leaders to catalogue existing internships and make new ones available. There are hundreds of internships available where students and recent graduates can learn about and begin careers in the Department. There are hundreds of internships across all aspects of the Department of Defense. My office learns more each week, and our goal is to connect local communities to those opportunities so that you can connect with them as well.

Along these lines, my office recently created a website that hosts a full range of information on Service Academies, how to prepare and apply for a range of officer programs or the roughly 700,000 civilian positions in the Department, and a great deal more. You can visit for more information. Through our Facebook page ( you can find news regarding diversity in the Department every day as well.

Finally, we are working to expand community mentorship opportunities. Every person in the Department of Defense has a unique background; a different set of life experiences. More of our people should and will connect with youth, particularly those facing difficult circumstances, to share their experiences and help the young people find their path to success.

All of these initiatives have one goal in mind: to bring the Department of Defense closer to the people it serves. Some will find career opportunities they did not know existed. Others will gain work experience to help advance in life. If we are successful in fully implementing each of these initiatives, then all communities will have a stronger relationship with the Department.

To do this – to build relationships that are lasting – the Department needs your active engagement. There are many in the Department reaching out to communities, but little can help you more than reaching out to us as well. Call your local installation or defense research facility to schedule a tour for group in your community. Meet with installation representatives to see how you can create a partnership best suited to each of you. And engage with us regularly through our events or new media sites to help sustain ongoing dialogue.

This is only one part of the larger diversity and inclusion plan to improve diversity within the Department of Defense. Even with strong progress with regard to diversity, and members of the Hispanic community advancing in increasing numbers, we recognize that we are not where we should be; and certainly not where we want to be.

Yet, the foundation of progress is strong teamwork. Strengthening our relationship is something we can do together, and I, along with many others, will be working hard to do just that.

Clarence Johnson is the Principal Director and Director for Civilian Equal Employment Opportunity, Office of the Deputy Under Secretary of Defense (Equal Opportunity) at the Pentagon.