It all began with Gil Coronado, Selective Service Director under former President George H. W. Bush, and pioneer in this federal agency’s determined outreach to young Latino men.
Two of the Agency’s three presidentially-appointed directors since then also have been Hispanic (Alfred Rascon under Ronald Reagan and the incumbent, Lawrence G. Romo under President Obama), vindicating Mr. Coronado’s vision while satisfying the Congressional mandate for Selective Service more effectively than ever. Selective Service has “done the math” and re-tooled its outreach to go where potential registrants are found.
But Gil Coronado’s contribution to Selective Service was born in life experiences that made him sensitive to the needs of “have-nots,” not to a cold calculation. In so doing he brought Selective Service into the 21st century. That his policies opened doors for Latinos was an added benefit.
Coronado said his mother died when he was five years old and his father when he was 17. His earliest memory was kissing his mother in her casket. He was, he said, “a product of the streets,” getting into the usual trouble. He enlisted in the military while still a teenager, barely 16. Although he said his “life turned around” in the military, he still brought some of his bad street habits with him. He was given an Article 15 for a typical indiscretion. This bump in the road, however, wasn’t as important as how he rose above it.
Coronado rose steadily in the ranks. Years later, Coronado served at the command level at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. A subordinate suggested sweeping the Article 15 under a rug. Coronado wouldn’t hear of it. “I wanted the Article 15 kept on the record,” he said, “to show it’s not the end of the world. It depends on what you do from now on.”
What Coronado did from then on was rise to the rank of colonel, earning over 35 awards and decorations, including the Legion of Merit and Bronze Star. He served in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, along with tours in Panama, Germany, and Spain. He was a U.S. member of the Inter-American Defense Board in Washington.
It was this sensitivity to human nature and his concern for the “have nots” that served him well throughout his professional life. Coronado still gets calls, he said, from those who served under him and claimed that he changed their lives. He was, naturally, a long-time crusader for Latino issues. His varied life experiences taught him something that many non-Hispanics don’t understand. The Hispanic community is not monolithic. There are differences between Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Guatemalans, Argentines, and Spaniards. There are also differences between descendants of families who trace their American roots to colonial times, and recent immigrants who enter the country driven by economic necessity.
Coronado was the driving force behind expanding National Hispanic Heritage from a week into a month. His promotion of Latino interests didn’t come without resistance, not only from Hispanic groups, but from the White House itself. He had to overcome the erroneous belief that registration with Selective Service meant recruiting young Latinos for cannon fodder. He had to reassure young Latinos here without papers that registration with Selective Service doesn’t attract attention and lead to deportation. He had to overcome complacence of a White House satisfied with what appeared to be an overall compliance rate already higher than that of the Internal Revenue Service and other federal agencies. Coronado’s old street smarts told him a 90 percent compliance rate was unacceptable. The remaining 10 percent, he discovered, were the “have nots,” many of them Latinos.
As director of Selective Service, Coronado reached those young men with every tool available. He still remembers the first young men who registered online. He also pushed the use of toll-free numbers and perhaps the most productive tool of all next to online registration, driver’s license legislation in individual states. He was tireless as director, appearing in every possible forum to communicate the importance of Selective Service registration and its connection to important benefits and privileges. In some cases, Coronado’s successors were the beneficiaries of his efforts as registration rates that plateaued in the late 1990s began to rise with the turn of the century.
Coronado believes the Agency still has an important role to play in this age of an all-volunteer military. “The Selective Service System remains America’s most important defense insurance policy in case this country ever faces a war crisis,” he said. “The US is currently challenged by unfriendly countries with traditional military forces, low intensity conflict terrorists, and forces using a combination of these threats in two or more separate theaters. Officials know that in an emergency, they can commit our active duty armed forces and activate the Selective Service System nationally, literally calling in millions of young Americans to arms if it is necessary.”