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Latino Heroes Honored on Memorial Day

“They Answered the Call”

J.Smith/El Hispano

Philadelphia –   Under the leafy canopy of the Medal of Honor Grove at Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge, Pa. on Sunday, and the next day at the Korean War and Vietnam War Memorials on Penn’s Landing, Veterans of Iraq, Afghanistan, the Gulf war, Vietnam, Korea and World War II gathered with family and friends for solemn Memorial Day ceremonies to honor those who, in the words of E. Harris Baum, Consul for the Republic of Korea, endured the “hardships and travails” of war to preserve our nation’s “freedom.”

   “Freedom comes with a price,” noted the Korean Consul,  “and that price sometimes calls for the ultimate sacrifice.”

     Ceremonies at Valley Forge’s Medal of Honor Grove mirrored those at the Vietnam and Korean War Memorials, but had a heightened sense of elation, arriving just six days after the passage of legislation honoring the Puerto Rican soldiers of the 65th Infantry Regiment, better known as the “Borinqueneers,” with the long sought Congressional Gold Medal.

   Besides fighting Chinese and N. Korean enemy soldiers, along with elements that included weather that Consul Baum noted often dropped to “40 degrees below zero,” the Borinqueneers also faced the hurdles of discrimination. According to Korean War Veteran Hector Maisonave, they were still segregated – despite changes initiated by President Truman- and were often referred to as “dogs and spics,” and typically  given “old” and inadequate clothing and equipment.

  Yet the members of Puerto Rico’s 65th Infantry Regiment persevered, and as Mayor Michael Nutter said in his remarks on Monday -referring to all Veterans- “they showed up, responded to the call,” and “did their duty.”

   In February of 1951, General Douglas MacArthur, writing of the “gallant 65th Infantry,” extolled their “valor, determination, and  resolute will to victory (that) give daily testament to their invincible loyalty to the United States.”

   “They are writing a brilliant record of achievement in battle,” added MacArthur, “ and I am proud indeed to have them in this command.”

   The nationwide effort of several years to obtain the Congressional recognition was described by the Keynote Speaker of the Valley Forge ceremonies, State Senator and Lt. Governor candidate Mike Stack, as “long overdue.”

   The Congressional Gold Medal is the highest honor bestowed by Congress on any individual or group.

  The endeavor was  spearheaded in Philadelphia by Veteran, U.S.M.C. Juvencio Gonzalez, an aide to Sen. Stack, and Veteran U.S.M.C. George Perez, an aide to U.S. Rep. Bob Brady.

   “These advocates are the heart and soul of this movement and I am in awe of what they have accomplished,” said Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi, referring to Juvencio Gonzalez, George Perez and others.

    After an introduction by Latin-American Post 840 Commander Jose M. Melendez and Unit 840 President Candida Gonzalez, remarks were offered by Jason Raia, V.P, Freedom Foundation; Dr. Emilio Marrero, (Ret.) Cpt. US Navy; Deborah Meserve, Col. US Air Force and Tim Meserve, (Ret.) Lt. Col. US Air Force.

   Wreaths and flowers were placed at the Medal of Honor Obelisk which honors the Puerto Rican Medal Of Honor recipients by: Latin-American Auxiliary Unit 840; Latin-American Post 840; Hispanic-American Riders Assoc.;National Assoc. of Puerto Rican Women; Milian Rodriguez Funeral Home; and Olga and Jose Melendez.

   The five original Puerto Rican recipients of the Medal of Honor, that included PFC Fernando Luis Garcia, CPT Humbert Roque Versace, PFC Carlos James Lozada, SPC4 Hector Santiago Colon and Cpt. Euripides Rubio, now have four additional names. Following a lengthy investigation that determined a number of Jewish and Latino soldiers deserved the recognition for their service, the list also includes: Private Demensio Rivera (Korea), Private Miguel A. Vera (Korea); MSG Juan E. Negron (Korea) and SSG Felix M. Conde-Falcon (Vietnam).

  During the hour-long ceremonies at the Korean War Memorial, a crowd of more than three hundred heard from several dignitaries, but perhaps the most inspiring and briefest remarks came from Northeast Philadelphia’s Kevin McCloskey.  A Veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, McCloskey lost both legs when an IED struck his vehicle in 2008.

   After saying that “returning home” made him realize how important his service was, McCloskey added, that the key to his recovery was his “family, friends and neighborhood.”

    CBS3’s longtime Weatherman Tom Lamaine spoke of following the example of his Father and two uncles -who served in the Air Force during WWII- by joining the Air Force during the early years of the Vietnam war.

  Noting that many were avoiding the draft at the time, Mr. Lamain added wryly, “I also avoided the draft, I enlisted.”

   The concluding wreath laying at the Vietnam War Memorial ceremonies featured a wreath offered by South Vietnamese soldiers who fought as the allies of the American forces in a war that took more than 58,000 lives. Among the 646 Philadelphians  on the city’s Vietnam war memorial are those of: David Flores, Julio Morales, Louis T. Ortiz, Angel Reyes, Samuel Rodriguez, Angelo C. Santiago, Antonio A. Solis and Roberto Torres.

   After the former South Vietnamese soldiers had laid their wreath, the commander of the group, Ean Nguyen, came over and shook hands with Jose Rivera, a Vietnam Veteran and former Commander of the Latin-American Legion Post 840.

  Having fought alongside South Vietnamese soldiers during his time in Vietnam (1967-68), Mr. Rivera noted, “They were not big people (in stature), but they were very good fighters.”    

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