United States Marine Corps Major General Christopher Cortez is not a wordy man. Yet he and his staff have communicated with thousands potential recruits about the branding of the Marine Corps. And when he does so, it’s not his Hispanic heritage, nor his economic challenges growing up the son of immigrants that he draws on to grab them. He uses the messages of
tradition and hard work. But don’t think that he doesn’t understand the language of minorities and Generation Y: he will definitively tell you that the message, and its opportunity, applies to everyone.
“I grew up working on farms and orchards with my father,” he says. As the most senior Hispanic officer in the Marine Corps, the general has found contemporary methods effective in showing others what he has learned yet he rarely mentions himself. “We have Marines from minority groups who have been pioneers and who have done great things; they should be an inspiration to young people who wonder if they can make it, who wonder if they have a chance, who wonder if they too can do something of value in this country and contribute. I say they can.”
The hard work and planning to attract young people comes together effectively for the U.S. Marine Corps, which has met its goals of attracting some 40,000 new recruits each year under General Cortez’ leadership at the Marine Corps Recruiting Command in Quantico, Va. In coming weeks, the Marine Corps hopes to attract more recruits at The National Council of La Raza (NCLR) conference in Austin, Texas, (July 12-15) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) 94TH Annual Conference in Miami, Fla. (July 12-17).
“This is about opportunity,” says General Cortez. “This is about making sure that the Marine Corps’ message of opportunity reaches everyone who might be interested no matter where they come from.”
Cortez’ commitment to strengthening the Marine Corps’ image with young people and its message with the broader society is rooted in his own beginnings. Born the son of an immigrant sharecropper and raised in Vacaville, Calif., Cortez recounts that opportunities were rare when he graduated from high school. “College was almost a dream,” he says of the chances of low-income high school graduates obtaining a higher education in the 1960s. “It seemed beyond my reach. But I wanted it, and did get into college.” The general then joined the Marine Corps by entering the Platoon Leaders Program. He was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in the Marine Corps upon graduating from Marietta College.
However, Cortez is fast to note that his accomplishments are not pioneering. Minorities have a longstanding history among the ranks of the Marine Corps. Among a dozens of Black, Hispanic and Asian servicemen and women, Cortez mentions Lt. Gen. Pedro DeValle who served as a division commander before he retired in 1947. DeValle was one of the early high-ranking Hispanic officers of the Marine Corps.
There are many other minorities who have benefited from a career in the Marine Corps. Major General Leo Williams is one of its top officers. “You never forget who you are or where you come from,” says Williams. “However, the Marine Corps teaches its own lessons and traditions while building leaders. Through that, we don’t distinguish one Marine from the other on the basis of their background.”
Recently retired Major General Charles F. Bolden, Jr., was a career Marine whose accomplishments included flying more than 100 combat missions into North and South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia and later becoming an astronaut with NASA in 1981. He subsequently flew four missions in space beginning with the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1986. “I have achieved heights beyond my dreams,” says the South Carolina native. “The Marine Corps can build you into more than you think you are.”
General Cortez shares a similar view. “You’re a Marine first. That’s who we are,” he says. “Take pride in your customs and traditions because that’s who you are and you should preserve those traditions. But you are a Marine first.” Cortez believes that people who grow with the principles of the Marine Corps will be successful upon returning to their communities as well as in the Corps. “You return a leader and that’s good for everybody,” he explains.
Minorities in today’s Marine Corps more than mirror the population numbers found in American society. For example, 14.6 percent of enlisted Marines are African Americans (12.3 percent of American society) and 14.4 percent of the enlisted force is Hispanic (12.5 percent of the American population). Minorities are represented in all areas of Marine Corps operations. Among officers, 7.5 percent of the Marine Corps leadership is African American and 5.5 percent of all officers are Hispanic. Cortez notes that the Corps actively seeks minority officers and that a recruiting goal is to have the number of
minority officers equal to, or exceed, their numbers in society.
In fact, after a career spanning over 32 years, Cortez insists that it comes down to the simple message that his father shared with him: education.
“Pursue an education,” Cortez says of his father’s advice. “And do the best you can at whatever you attempt to do.” Although not all recruits become career Marines, Cortez argues that all who become Marines are better for it. “If a young person walks away from this with the message of hard work, it will work for them. Set goals, stay focused and pursue as much education as you can,” he says. “No matter what walk of life you may come from, if you capture our message, you will have a better life.”
Cortez’ has been successful in his current position as the Commanding General of Marine Corps Recruiting Command. Under his leadership, 3,400 recruiters are responsible for signing up 40,000 applicants and 1,200 officers candidates each year. The recruiting television commercials have the hyped edge of a summer blockbuster movie trailer. Increasingly in English and Spanish, the public service spots are steeped in tradition and drama, drawing on emotion and challenging the
viewer all at once. The Marine Corps’ revamped, award-winning website, Marines.com, is one of the strongest single recruiting tools in its marketing arsenal that includes commercials, public service announcements, brochures and posters, a nationwide theater campaign, and advertising on a race car to name just a few of the programs. Now, looking to reach Generation Y, the Marine Corps is set to release a visually and graphically charged CD business card that will help the
recruiters connect with potential applicants.
At the helm of it all is General Cortez.
Cortez’ clarity on the value of joining the Marine Corps found visionary support in the team he employs. Internally, the general’s staff is a small group but the process is aided by 3,400 recruiters throughout the nation.
Captain Marc Cole, the diversity officer on Cortez’ staff, is responsible for coordinating the Marine Corps’ role at the NAACP and National Council of La Raza conferences. He notes that the general’s consistent application of one of the Marine Corps’ strongest principles, to complete the mission and to take care of one’s troops, is a leadership lesson that he will employ in his own career. “He stays close to the codes that we have,” Cole says. “I can see the clear value in that approach in the results that he gets. I’ll apply those ideals in my work.”
When asked what message he would like to leave behind as the capstone to his career as a Marine, General Cortez responds with hopefulness that young people who come through a tour with the Marines depart with a high work ethic and sense of duty. “I would hope that they get the message of hard work because it’s really fundamental,” he said. “If you work hard, set goals and stay focused you can attain a level of success.”