J.W. Cortes in military uniform.

I enlisted in the Marine Corps to escape a really bad situation. It was a decision that I have often stated saved my life.

It has, and will forever be, my greatest honor and tremendous privilege to have served alongside our nation’s absolute finest service members. Serving in the American Marine Corps from 1994-2007 for nearly 13 years. 

I had several jobs in the Marines. Starting out in the communications field. Then, what probably is still today my best job ever, I protected American embassies in Nairobi, Kenya. I also served in various other embassies including Addis Ababa, Australia and Shanghai. After that time I joined the infantry. That is the unit I was with when I deployed to Iraq in 2003. My unit was part of the invading force and we saw combat. 

The Latino tradition of serving in the military is a proud one. It resonates deeply with me and my family. My dad served in Vietnam. He was drafted shortly after arriving in New York from Puerto Rico. And he isn’t alone! Thousands upon thousands of Puerto Ricans have served. Today those numbers obviously include our South American and other Caribbean brothers and sisters. It’s something that some Americans sometimes forget.

If you travel through any small town in Puerto Rico, in the center of those towns, are plazas. Usually that is where you will find a statue or a war memorial with the names of Puerto Ricans. They fought and died heroically on the battlefield in defense of the United States of America. What can be more American than that? We are very much a part of the American fabric. It’s a fabric that has been dyed with our blood. 

J.W. Cortes in combat.

Military training really stays with you. A facet that still impacts me today is the concept of teamwork. There is a saying that “The strength of the Marine Corps is the individual Marine, and the strength of the individual is the Marine Corps.” In other words, no one is greater in the overall mission. The mission cannot be accomplished without everyone doing their part. I really enjoyed working in that way. It’s why I love film making and team projects. It encourages you to push past your own limits but it also allows an opportunity to motivate others through your own example.

The military has its pluses and minuses. It does a fantastic job of taking our young brothers and sisters and transforming them into leaders and better Americans. What is lacking is [how we transition] those from the military back to the civilian populous. I think it has been lacking for some time. So many young brothers and sisters, especially within the Latino community, come back to join the workforce but don’t understand their skill set and employers don’t know what to do with them. They return to communities and sometimes fall back into the same rat race of trying to figure out how to make ends meet. How to provide not only for themselves, but for their families. We also don’t adequately understand what may be going on with them internally or the mindsets they return with. Some have seen combat and need additional assistance. I think we can do better for them.

J.W. Cortes on-set.

I decided to leave the service a few years after my first son was born. I did so not knowing 100% it would be the best decision for me or my family. But I believe that everything worked out the way it was supposed to. That choice allowed me to pursue other careers. It is why I get to enjoy the fruits of those decisions with my acting and philanthropic work. 

I think it’s bad for America that immigrant veterans are having a harder time getting citizenship or are being deported. It’s something not enough people know about. If you commit a heinous crime, regardless of where you come from. You should be held to the letter of the law. But for those people who joined the military assuming that the government would assist them in becoming citizens and suddenly the rules change, it’s unfair. Some are caught in the maze of paperwork or their documents get “lost” in those instances. Or an instance where a veteran comes home from several deployments and is pulled over for a traffic infringement and finds himself in handcuffs. In those instances, we can and should, want to do better. This is a story I want to share broadly via the medium of film.

J.W. Cortes images courtesy of author

About The Author

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J.W. Cortés is an actor, speaker, philanthropist, first responder and Marine Corps Veteran. He has appeared on various prime time series but is best known for his portrayal of Detective Alvarez on Gotham.

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