Every single weekday, a bus arrives at a federal processing center somewhere in the United States and out shuffles a group of young men and women ready to do whatever their country asks. What awaits these mostly teenagers and twenty-somethings, some unmistakably Latino, is an adventure that may take on characteristics not yet included in their vocabulary. Though unlikely, it is possible that they could end up as the next Roy Benavidez or Cholene Espinoza.
Whatever their fate, they will all one day be military veterans. And, forever, they will be saluted on the eleventh day of the eleventh month---Veteran’s Day---as long as there is an America.
According to the U.S. Census, there are more than 1.1 million Hispanic veterans---men and women---in the United States. And they have participated in every military action undertaken by the U.S. since the Civil War. In fact, according to the U.S. Army Center on Military History, three Latinos, Cpl. Joseph H. DeCastro, Seaman Phillip Bazaar and Seaman John Ortega, were all awarded the nation’s highest military distinction, the Congressional Medal of Honor, for their service in this war.
In all, 43 Hispanics have been awarded this prestigious honor, including Pvt. Joe P. Martinez of Denver. A statue of Martinez, killed in World War II, stands in Lincoln Park between the State Capitol and the Denver County Building. The inscription reads simply, “for conspicuous gallantry” and for service “above and beyond the call of duty.”
Except for a statue or a plaque, Hispanic veterans often get lost in the mix, said the former administrative assistant to Dr. Hector P. Garcia, founder of the American G.I. Forum. “They’re kind of the forgotten veterans,” said Patsy Vasquez-Contes, who now splits her time between Corpus Christi and Pueblo. “Their input was just as important and they gave their all so that we can walk on this earth every day,” she said. “Hispanics fought for this country when this country wasn’t necessarily ready to fight for them.”
The incident that set off Dr. Garcia---and inspired the formation of the American G.I. Forum---happened in 1948 in Three Rivers, Texas. Garcia was incensed that a local funeral home would not open its chapel to the family of Felix Longoria, a young soldier killed in the Philippines. When the Rice Funeral Home said the Longoria family could use its own personal residence for the service but not the family funeral home because of a whites-only policy, Garcia enlisted the help of then Sen. Lyndon Johnson. Johnson was incensed. He arranged for Longoria’s funeral at Arlington National Cemetery. He also attended the gravesite service with his wife, Lady Bird. Descendents of the Rice family dispute the account and say the whole thing was a result of a simple misunderstanding and that it only offered its home to keep apart warring portions of Longoria’s extended family.
The incident remains sensitive in Three Rivers where the town’s post office now bears Longoria’s name. Dr. Garcia’s role in the event, along with his contribution to civil rights, is also acknowledged across Texas. In 2009, Senate Bill 495 was passed. It designates the third Wednesday of each September as Dr. Hector P. Garcia Day. He was also honored by President Reagan with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1984.
Other veterans that have served our country are the Valenzuela brothers. Valente, 62, volunteered in the Army and was deployed to Vietnam. He is a recipient of the Bronze Star and his brother, Manuel, joined the Marines. Last year each brother received a letter from the Department of Homeland Security stating that they would be deported, this due to previous trouble with the law. Through their attorney the brothers dispute the government’s claim that they are here illegally saying that they indeed came to this country as legal permanent residents in the mid ‘50s and that their mother is a U.S. born citizen. While they are in a current strife with the government, their service to this country is undeniable.
There are amazing stories involving Latinos in service of their country, including Benavidez and Espinoza. Benavidez, wounded in the arms, legs and head, single-handedly fought off and killed an unknown number of enemy soldiers while saving eight fellow soldiers and destroying highly classified materials in 1968. He received the Medal of Honor in a White House ceremony in 1981. New Mexico native and 1987 Air Force Academy graduate, Espinoza became the first Latina to pilot the super-secret U-2 spy plane.
Benavidez story is told in the book, “Medal of Honor: A Vietnam Warrior’s Story.” Espinoza, now a United Airline pilot, also has a book. “Through the Eye of the Storm,” is dedicated to the efforts to rebuild following Hurricane Katrina.
While there are amazing stories involving Latinos in service of their country, most simply join the military to do what the nation has asked them to do, including stepping into harm’s way. But most simply join for a grand adventure and most return home. “I got to learn so much. I got to see so much. And serving my country was a great honor,” said Denver businessman Phil Covarrubias, who joined the Air Force out of Rocky Ford. Covarrubias was a jet engine mechanic.
Beginning in 1919, when President Woodrow Wilson designated that Nov. 11 “be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in this country’s service,” to today, no single group has made a more valiant commitment to their nation than veterans. And Latinos are an essential part of this amazing group.
“I believe that there is no greater calling for a man or a woman than to serve in the military of a free nation. I believe that is a calling that transcends all others because imbedded deep within the soul of every free man or woman is the knowledge that every freedom we have was earned for us by our ancestors, who paid some price for that freedom,” said Benavidez.
Master Sgt. Benavidez died in 1998. He was accorded full military honors.