BENSONHURST — The U.S. military is becoming more ethnically diverse, just like the country it serves. Case in point: Hispanics are the fastest-growing minority in the military, and the number of Latino veterans is projected to double within 10 years.
One such veteran is Father Edwin Ortiz, a parochial vicar of St. Athanasius – St. Dominic, Bensonhurst, who was ordained as a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn in May. His story is an example of the growing presence of Latinos in the country’s armed forces and among veterans, and it also shows the connection between serving in the military and serving the church.
According to a Pew Research Center report, Latinos make up 36 percent of active-duty military members, compared with 25 percent in 2004. Meanwhile, a report by the National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics says Latinos make up six percent of U.S. military veterans.
Father Ortiz was a member of the U.S. Navy who was deployed with the Marines in Asia. His travels took him to Japan, where he helped to provide medical care to families who couldn’t afford to be seen by doctors or buy medication. That showed Father Ortiz that military life doesn’t necessarily mean fighting.
“I think before it was when people think ‘military,’ everyone thinks ‘war,’ right away. One of the great things that the military has done is they’ve expanded on their role, showing all the other benefits that there are in serving their country,” he said.
While he was serving overseas, Father Ortiz was inspired to revisit his discernment to the priesthood as he worked on humanitarian projects with the Marines and saw how he could make a positive difference.
In March 2012 — his final year in the service — a tsunami and earthquake hit Japan.
“Japan was home at the time. Just seeing all the devastation and everything that happened really hit home,” he said.
Father Ortiz was on a military ship returning to Japan when the disaster hit, and he became part of “Operation Tomodachi,” the first wave of U.S. military clean-up and relief efforts in Japan following the devastation.
In the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami, Father Ortiz said his faith was tested, as was the faith of the people he served.
“Sometimes in people’s most desperate moments, they lose hope and they start questioning: ‘What’s the point? Why am I even here?’” Father Ortiz said.
“Being that person to help bring them back toward Christ to show them that there is hope, that God’s love is greater than all of the circumstances,” was something Father Ortiz experienced.