Daniel J. Hernandez, resplendent in his crisp National Guard uniform, looked out at the audience that had come to honor him at the Armed Forces Reserve Center in Los Alamitos.
Once a private, Hernandez now stood before the assemblage as one of the top military officers in the nation: a newly promoted major general. His wife, Dorothy, had just affixed the two silver stars on his shoulder.
A letter from Gov. Pete Wilson, read to the audience, had praised Hernandez for being the highest-ranking Latino in the California National Guard.
Now it was Hernandez's time to speak. His voice was firm, but his face clearly showed the emotion of the moment.
"Dreams do come true," said Hernandez, the American-born son of immigrant Mexican parents. "And only in America can it happen."
Hernandez's dream had been to succeed in the state's National Guard. His fellow officers said Monday that Hernandez had more than achieved that goal.
Col. Roger Goodrich, the master of ceremonies, told the audience that only .002% of the people in the National Guard ever rise to the rank achieved by Hernandez. California Adjutant Gen. Robert Thrasher said Hernandez "has commanded just about everything we have in the California National Guard, and he has done it exceptionally well."
Ironically, the ceremony for Hernandez came on the heels of a worrisome budget-cut notice for the unit he commands, the National Guard's 40th Infantry Division (Mechanized).
Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney announced last Thursday that he is asking Congress to slash the 40th Infantry Division from its current 15,000 troops to about 10,000 by mid-1993.
Thrasher, who is based in Sacramento and heads the state's National Guard units, in his speech briefly referred to the proposed budget cut.
"We're in very difficult times with our division right now," Thrasher said. "We're fighting for its survival, and that's a pitch to you . . . to get out in the community and help us keep this division where it belongs, and that is at full strength and in the state of California."
Hernandez made no reference to congressional budget cuts in his brief address to the audience. But later, during a press conference, he said of the proposed cuts: "We don't like to do it."
Hernandez, however, pointedly avoided criticizing the proposed cuts or making a plea for congressional action. Asked if he was going to urge letter-writing to Congress, he responded, "We can't get into that."
The 40th Infantry Division that Hernandez heads is based in Los Alamitos, but its National Guard members live throughout California.
Hernandez, 58, lives in Altadena. His parents, natives of central Mexico, moved to Pasadena in 1932, and Hernandez was born there a year later.
He joined the Army National Guard in 1949, when he was 16. He started at the lowest level for an enlisted man but quickly was promoted to the highest noncommissioned rank then possible. At that point, the late 1950s, his commanding officer suggested that Hernandez apply for officer school.
Hernandez initially balked at the idea. "I just didn't think I had the ability (to become an officer)," he once said in an interview. But he ultimately decided to go to try. He was commissioned a second lieutenant, the lowest commissioned level, on June 8, 1958.
In the 34 subsequent years, Hernandez has risen into the rarefied ranks of top generals. His military colleagues said Monday that he has richly deserved each promotion.
"This is a happy occasion," Col. Goodrich said. "One of our own has made good."
Hernandez, however, told everyone in the audience that his wife will always outrank him. He said that ever since he became a second lieutenant, he has always given his wife the insignia of the next higher rank.
He did so again on Monday. Taking out a jewelry box, Hernandez produced three silver stars linked together into a bar. Each star was set with a diamond. He then pinned the jewelry on Dorothy Hernandez.
"I've always got to remember who the boss is," he said.