Fort Belvoir, Virginia –
Greatness comes when people from diverse backgrounds share a common experience and respect one another despite their cultural differences, a two-star Navy admiral told McNamara Headquarters Complex employees during a Hispanic Heritage Month observance Sept. 23.
Rear Adm. Martha Herb has spent the past year experiencing Hispanic customs and traditions as director of the Inter-American Defense College, an international educational institution that accepts students from 35 independent states of the Americas ranging from Brazil and Chile to Peru and Haiti.
“A year ago, I spoke about 10 to 20 Spanish words. Then I was selected as the director of the IADC, a predominantly Latin American college with a unique mission. During my first year at the college, I’ve experienced the richness of the Latin American culture, which I’ve discovered differs quite a bit from country to country,” she said.
The IADC provides graduates, which are members of the military, police or government, with a master’s of science in multidimensional security and defense and prepares them for senior-level positions in their home governments. Herb described it as a place where students come together to embrace academic freedom and discover the art of critical thinking in order to develop strategic goals and objectives for their respective countries.
Open discussions about issues such as human rights, drug trafficking and immigration are part of the curriculum. While students and faculty are encouraged to talk about these issues, hostility is not allowed.
The college also partners with U.S. Southern Command to present seminars about dealing with complex emergencies such as peace support operations and natural disasters.
“Think about Chile, who has frequent earthquakes. Think about the earthquakes in Haiti. This brings the nations together so they can think about the possibilities and how they can help one another as a hemisphere,” Herb said.
Creating strong, cooperative relationships with geographic neighbors is more important than ever, she continued. Herb also described how giving Hispanic students the opportunity to exchange ideas leads to better inter-American understanding. A recent graduate who now works for the Haitian government is an example.
“He now has friends in Chile, Peru, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and all through the hemisphere. If he needs anything or something comes up in his government, he can pick up the phone and call them,” she said.
The admiral also described an encounter with the minister of Trinidad and Tobago that tested her willingness to understand and accept the Hispanic culture. The minister was visiting the college to learn more about its purpose and goals, and Herb was the only woman present. Numerous times, he touched Herb, rubbing her back or patting her arm. When the meeting ended, she asked the men present if they noticed anything strange during the meeting. They all replied, “No.”
“In the U.S. we have come to define any kind of unwelcome touch as inappropriate, but this is a different culture and you have to learn to understand it and recognize that it’s not meant to be offensive. It’s not meant to be sexual; it’s just a gesture of warmth and hospitality,” she said. “It’s something I’ve had to learn to deal with.”
Herb, who is also one of the first three female officers to graduate from the Naval School of Diving and Salvage, encouraged employees to embrace the vitality and legacy of the Hispanic culture by traveling.
“I encourage you to choose a country and let yourself fully experience the culture,” she said.
The event was followed by a cultural performance from the band Grupo Corozo.