group of flags from hispanic countries

TriWest Employees Share Their Stories During Hispanic Heritage Month

Each year from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, we celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month to honor the histories, cultures and contributions of Hispanic Americans whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America. According to a 2020 Demographics Report from the Department of Defense, more than 17% of active duty Service members are Hispanic or Latino, making it the fastest growing population in the military. With a growing number of Hispanic Americans among our active duty and Veteran populations, it’s important to recognize the achievements and contributions Hispanic Americans have made to our country and to honor the cultural diversity present in our military.

“We have pride in our Hispanic heritage, but we also have pride in being American just as much. Being Hispanic and being able to serve our country is truly an honor.” Joe Gardiner-Sanchez, Army Veteran and TriWest Employee

This month, we highlight three Hispanic Veterans who continue to serve our Veteran community through their work at TriWest Healthcare Alliance (TriWest). These three Veterans have their own diverse backgrounds and unique stories, but all three share a love of country, a strong work ethic and a pride in their continued service on behalf of Veterans.

Phillip Trujillo, Marine Veteran and IT Support Manager

Phillip Trujillo, an IT Support Manager with TriWest at Phoenix Corporate, was born in Colorado in 1973, and his early years were filled with hardship. He lost his father, a coal miner, when he was only 6 years old, and his mother worked multiple jobs to keep food on the table. After moving to Phoenix, AZ, Phillip struggled to fit in and dealt with bullying.

Phillip Trujillo in the field“It made me stronger and drove me to make something of my life,” Phillip says. “I wanted to prove that just because I didn’t fit the norm, had a single mother and was Hispanic, I could still make a difference in the world. It was then I made the decision to join the Marines.”

Phillip’s grandfather was a Marine who served in Korea. He always respected his grandfather’s choice to serve and decided that in order to make an impact, he was going to follow in his footsteps.

“I wanted that feeling, that accomplishment,” he says. Phillip graduated from boot camp in 1991 and deployed for the first time as part of Operation Restore Hope Somalia. A year later, he traveled to Okinawa, Japan.

“On this deployment, I had the privilege and honor of being part of the 50th anniversary of Iwo Jima,” Phillip says. He walked with World War II Marines on the beaches of Iwo Jima, listening to stories of great loss and great accomplishment.

“This time will forever be a part of my life,” he says. “These experiences are what being a Marine is all about.”

Phillip left active duty in 1995 as a Corporal. Looking back on his time in the military, Phillip believes deeply in the expression all Marines know, “We are the few, the proud.”

Phillip’s time as a Marine instilled in him traits such as integrity, dependability and initiative. He says, “I use these traits and skills to help guide my life, my career and my family life.”

Phillip Trujillo with wifeFor the past seven years, Phillip has worked for TriWest and is now an IT Support Manager. Phillip understands the importance of his work as an employee but also as a VA and TriWest patient.

“I fully understand the need for what TriWest does for Veterans,” he says “There is a pride across the TriWest family that starts with our CEO, Dave McIntyre, and funnels all the way down through the employee base.”

Asked about Hispanic Heritage Month, Phillip says, “I feel it’s important to support one another, to stand as one. This month brings our heritage to others, educates others on the struggles we face in this country and shows that we have made an impact on the world.”

Even as we highlight the individual contributions of people like Phillip, he believes, “In the end, we are all one. We protected our country together, we fought alongside one another, as one force.”

Jennifer Lares, Navy Veteran and Claims Escalation Representative

Jennifer Lares, a Claims Escalation Representative from El Paso, Texas was also inspired by her family to join the military and shares Phillip’s work ethic and pride for her background and military service. Jennifer spent most of her childhood in Clint, Texas. Her mother was born in El Paso and her father was born in Chihuahua, Mexico.

Jennifer Lares after bootcamp“I grew up playing outside until evening, riding bikes, building forts and swimming in irrigation ditches,” she says.

Being the oldest child in the family, Jennifer accepted a lot of responsibility, got her first job in high school and took her education seriously. As graduation approached, she was leaning toward leaving home and going to college, but her mom’s own story made an impact on her as well.

“My mom always wanted to venture out and take a different path but was not allowed to once she graduated,” Jennifer says. “My mom’s family believed the military was only for males and did not support her decision.”

Fortunately, Jennifer’s family did support her decision, and she dove headfirst into boot camp, something she’ll never forget. She says, “Diving into something that I was not fully prepared for has always helped me keep going when my path hits an obstacle.”

Jennifer spent 14 years in the Navy and finished as an ES/Second Class Petty Officer, deploying to places such as Guam, Japan and South Korea. During that time, Jennifer learned a lot about versatility.

Jennifer Lares at TriWest headquarters“No matter what the day throws at you, you always stay the course and finish the race,” she says.

Her time also made her appreciate the diversity of the military. Jennifer says, “I have had the pleasure of working and interacting with individuals from many different backgrounds.”

Jennifer is now a Claims Escalation Representative at TriWest and tries to take care of her military brothers and sisters just like she would take care of family.

“My work is important to me because it deals with the health and well-being of individuals who have sacrificed so much for all the freedoms we have today,” she says.

For Hispanic Heritage Month, Jennifer celebrates the time when “our culture can share and display all of its beautiful people, food and customs.” Jennifer loves to educate her children and future generations about the Hispanic culture and history.

“We welcome change, accept any challenge and never forget our beginnings,” she says. “I believe Hispanics in the military have changed the viewpoint of many parents who are no longer hesitant to support their sons and daughters in the military.”

Joe Gardiner-Sanchez, Army Veteran and Training Specialist

Joe Gardiner-Sanchez, a Training Specialist with Phoenix Corporate, also has a family connection to the military, as well as a strong desire to serve others.

Joe was born and raised in Panama until the age of 12 when his father, a Veteran of the Army and the Marines, was stationed in the United States. He says, “My dad was a big reason I joined. I wanted to serve our country as well. Having a Hispanic background and a very family-oriented mindset fits well with the military and its values.”

Joe Gardiner-Sanchez in the field

Joe served almost 17 years in the Army until he was honorably discharged due to medical reasons. Joe earned the rank of Sergeant and had numerous deployments, including Desert Storm, Iraq, Bosnia, Kuwait and more. During his service, Joe learned many important lessons.

“I learned a lot about respect for everyone, pride in my country and a sense of duty to others,” he says. Joe took seriously the values of self-discipline, honor and integrity.

Joe says, “To this day, no matter how old someone may be, I address them as Sir or Ma’am because it’s a sign of respect to me.”

Along with those life lessons, Joe has some difficult memories of his service that he carries and deals with today. Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, Joe says he struggles with some of his memories and the “ugliness of war, combat and the lack of respect for human life from others.”

Joe Gardiner-Sanchez wearing patriotic suit Joe channels all of this into the work he does now on behalf of other Veterans. “I joined the TriWest team because of what TriWest does for our military and its Veterans,” he says. “The leadership and team members are dedicated to serving our Veterans. As a trainer and as a Veteran that uses the programs and benefits, I take pride in training our employees and instilling that pride in them.”

For Joe, Hispanic Heritage Month is a time when he can educate others about his heritage and his country. “I really don’t need a month to carry that pride, but for others who are not Hispanic, it’s a time to learn about other countries of Hispanic descent.”

However, Joe reminds us of our connectedness as well. He shares, “We may have pride in our Hispanic heritage, but we also have pride in being American just as much. Being Hispanic and being able to serve our country is truly an honor.”

Throughout these three unique stories, we see similar themes of determination, grit, love of their Hispanic heritage and an overwhelming sense of pride in our country. We thank these Veterans for sharing their voices and for their continued work on behalf of our Nation’s heroes.

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