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Puerto Rico Profile: William A. Navas, Jr.

July 20, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

Pledging to improve the "quality of life and quality of service" in the United States Navy, William A. Navas, Jr., a 33-year military veteran and the founding chairman of the American Veterans’ Committee for Puerto Rico Self-Determination, received Senate confirmation on July 12 as Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Manpower and Reserve Affairs.

A retired Army Major General who served as head of the Army National Guard from 1995 to 1998, Navas will be one of the senior civilian officials reporting to the Secretary of the Navy.

General Navas has dedicated most of his adult life to public service, as a regular Army officer and combat veteran, as a Guardsman, and as an advocate for Puerto Rican self-determination. "I guess you could say that when you’ve worked in public service, it stays with you," he said in a recent interview conducted just prior to his appointment to the Bush Administration. "I see this [appointment] as another opportunity to contribute to this great nation of ours."

Navas was born into a family of Army Engineers in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico. His paternal grandfather, Antonio M. Navas, was an architect and a veteran of both World Wars. In 1917, he became one of the first Puerto Ricans to be commissioned as a U.S. Army officer, eventually attaining the rank of colonel. Antonio Navas later served as Chief of Staff and Army Attaché for U.S. Army Forces in Brazil.

William A. Navas, Sr. — the father of General Navas — continued the family tradition. He joined the Army ROTC while studying engineering at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez, and after graduation he received an Army commission. He served in World War II as a captain, then returned to Puerto Rico to launch a successful career in civil engineering.

With such a pedigree, William Navas, Jr., seemed destined for the Army. Born in 1942, at the height of the Second World War, young Billy grew up wearing a miniature Army Corps of Engineers uniform, tailored from the leftover fabric of his father’s and grandfather’s uniforms. As he recalled, he was always one rank below that of his father.

According to General Navas, however, it was not simply his family’s tradition that inspired his career in the military. Noting the creation of a Puerto Rican militia in 1511, he asserted that "the military tradition in Puerto Rico is very strong," dating back to the days of Ponce de Leon. Yet part of that tradition arises from family connections, and the Navas family history reveals the tendency for young Puerto Ricans to follow their older siblings, fathers, uncles, and grandfathers into military service.

Navas graduated from the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez in 1965 with a degree in civil engineering. His father had hoped that he would join the family construction business. However, Navas — who like his father had served in the ROTC in college — had already set his sights on an Army career.

Much to his father’s disappointment, Second Lieutenant William Navas, Jr., accepted a commission as a regular Army officer and took an assignment in West Germany. He remained on active duty for the next five years, during which time he served a tour in Vietnam as commander of a combat company in the 168th Engineer Battalion.

In 1970, Navas was stationed in Puerto Rico, where the temptations to join his father’s firm and provide more economic stability for his family (which now included his wife, Wilda, and their two small children, William III and Gretchen), proved too strong to resist. Navas therefore resigned his regular Army commission and went to work for his father.

He did not, however, sever his military ties. Instead he joined the Puerto Rico Army Guard, embarking on a 28 year career as a citizen-soldier. He rose swiftly through the ranks, leaving his private sector job in 1980 to assume greater responsibilities with the military. Ultimately, in 1995, Major General Navas was appointed Director of the Army National Guard in Washington, D.C.

Over the years, Navas has proudly touted the role of National Guardsmen, who consider themselves the protectors of the militia tradition in the United States. In the event of a major war, he has said, "it will be the citizens [and not only the standing army] who will have to pick up and bear arms in defense of the country." Therefore during his tenure as head of the Army National Guard, he pushed to move the Guard into the 21st Century without losing sight of its founding principles. "The challenge is to maintain that common thread of the values of the citizen-soldier," he said in 1998, "so that we now have an individual, armed with a laptop, with the same spirit and the same values of the Minutemen at Lexington."

After retiring from military service in 1998, Navas began working as an independent consultant on defense matters. He also became involved in the debate to resolve Puerto Rico’s political status dilemma, an involvement which culminated in his chairmanship of the American Veterans’ Committee for Puerto Rico Self-Determination.

The Veterans’ Committee was founded to highlight the important role Puerto Ricans have played in the defense of the United States, and to encourage a congressionally-sponsored process toward a permanent political status for Puerto Rico. On the eve of his Pentagon appointment, as he prepared to resign as chairman of the committee, General Navas shared his thoughts on his experience with the committee, on Puerto Rico Self-Determination, and on the Vieques controversy.

"The tenure of my chairmanship with the committee has been invaluable in basically helping me strengthen my convictions and my understanding and my knowledge of Puerto Rico-U.S. relations over the past 100 years," he said.

General Navas has opted not to take a public position on the Navy’s presence on the island of Vieques, except to express his belief that "Vieques is a symptom of the colonial status" of Puerto Rico, where 3.8 million U.S. citizens reside without a voting representative in Congress or the right to elect the President of the United States.

Also, as a veteran, General Navas bristled at recurring suggestions that Puerto Ricans who protest the Navy’s presence in Vieques are somehow "ungrateful, unpatriotic, [and] anti-American.".

Referring to the oft-cited fact that Puerto Ricans are exempt from paying federal income tax, he retorted that "there are other ways of taxation." Since World War I, Puerto Ricans have been "taxed" with "the biggest, most important asset that you can have — the lives of our youth."

In his new job with the Navy, General Navas will not have a direct role in the Vieques controversy. Nevertheless, he said he hoped to "shed some light onto the background issues and some of the nuances" related to Vieques and to Puerto Rico in general.

For the most part, he will be busy overseeing the personnel issues facing the men and women of the Navy and Marine Corps, and he said he is "delighted and looking forward to being a part of the Navy team as we sail into the 21st Century."

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