By Selene Rodriguez
In commemoration of Veterans Day, the South Texas College Starr County campus honored those who have not only made the choice to fight for our country but have returned to make valuable contributions to their communities.
“There are no words to encompass the gratitude we feel when many of these men and women make the choice to leave everything to potentially pay the ultimate sacrifice so you and I can be here, for this safety that we cherish, able to speak our minds, to come to college and look forward to a great future,” said STC Board of Trustee Chair Rose Benavidez. “Let’s remember their sacrifice not just today, but every day, and for anyone who decides to make the military a career path, always know that there’s someone who is grateful.”
At this year’s traditional ceremony, the college honored retired First Sergeant Hector Rodriguez, former STC instructor and founder of the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC) at Roma Independent School District who served 21 years in the United States Army.
“It’s a great day to be a U.S. citizen. Many people believe we join the military to combat, but we do it to provide you with the freedom to have choices, choices that we take for granted,” said Rodriguez during the event in an emotional speech.
A Puerto Rico native, Rodriguez joined the army in 1981 seeking economic stability after graduating college with an associate degree in Business Administration.
Challenged with a language barrier, he embarked on a journey that would take him to many different places such as Germany, South Korea, New York and Kansas and would also give him the resources to obtain a bachelor’s degree in Real Estate Studies.
In 2000, he was sent to the Rio Grande Valley to become a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) instructor at the former University of Texas-Pan American (UTPA), now University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV).
“I had no idea what the RGV was. One day I was at combat, the next I’m in a classroom, but I’m so thankful the army sent me here; even though I was born in Puerto Rico, the Valley is my home,” he said.
Upon retiring from the army in 2002, Rodriguez saw an opportunity to help young people become better citizens through the JROTC and became part of the team to bring the program to Roma Independent School District.
“I saw a need to help guide Starr County youth down the right path. This area is filled with potential and smart young people who might just be lacking guidance,” said Rodriguez.
In his long career as a public teacher, which includes teaching at STC, Rodriguez faced many challenges such as misconceptions about the differences between the ROTC and JROTC programs.
“Many people believe signing up means these kids will be sent to the armed forces, but it’s very different than ROTC, which are cadets in college getting ready to serve. Our goal at JROTC is to help students do better for the good of the community,” he said. “We participate in community and charity projects, mentor them to be better citizens and encourage them to strive for higher education.”
He added that recent statistics provided by the JROTC organization demonstrates that the presence of the JROTC program in a school district can increase attendance and graduate numbers.
“It’s true that this program teaches you how to be a better citizen. It inspired me to help and give to my community, and now I volunteer for the Roma Fire Department,” said Aylin Garza, former JROTC cadet at Roma ISD and current STC student.
Rodriguez has guided many cadets like Garza, who have gone onto careers as first responders, and although he intended to retire from teaching in 2020, he ended up returning this year to continue his valuable contribution to Starr County.
“My hope to all veterans, no matter how long they have served, is that they come home to what I had in the RGV – a community that embraces you with open arms,” Rodriguez said. “I witnessed much in the army, but I can’t stand by and watch our youth throw away their futures. I am on a mission and I can’t stop. I love Starr County and I’m here to help make it better.”