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South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Puerto Ricans United In Patriotism For U.S. : Navy Exercises Bring Distress

BY Tanya Weinberg and Rafael A. Olmeda

May 27, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE SUN-SENTINEL. All Rights Reserved.

It was not money or opportunity that propelled the young Puerto Rican man to volunteer for the U.S. Army in 1968, but a chance to prove himself, a way to pay his dues.

In basic training, sergeants and officers often were annoyed with Hector Torres and his Puerto Rican comrades, many of whom did not speak English well.

Soon after, they shipped off to Vietnam, where privates of all backgrounds faced the war together, Torres said.

"I was scared," said Torres, now 50 and living in Miami. "I had to remind myself that I was doing something important for my country. I was doing it for the United States. I was doing it for Puerto Rico ."

Since Puerto Ricans became eligible for the draft during World War I, almost 1,250 have died in combat and 190,000 served in the two world wars, Korea, and Vietnam.

When it comes to pride and patriotism, South Florida's Puerto Rican veterans are loud and clear. Puerto Ricans are Americans who pay their taxes and fight for their country, the veterans say.

Yet some U.S. legislators have criticized Puerto Ricans as unpatriotic for opposing the Navy's bombing exercises on Vieques , an island off Puerto Rico 's east coast. A civilian guard was killed there in 1999 when a pilot bombed the wrong target during training. The incident sparked protests, and the Puerto Rican media reported that Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, called Puerto Ricans "ungrateful, myopic and misinformed."

While South Florida veterans disagree on whether the Navy should pull out of the training range at Vieques , they universally bristle at such criticism.

"It's insulting," said Frank Santiago, now of North Miami. "A lot of Puerto Ricans have given up their lives to be and stay American citizens."

Santiago saw that sacrifice first hand in Vietnam. He had the grim task of zippering his friends into body bags. Too often, he could only watch them die, unable to save them. He will say that much. But there are other things he saw during combat he has never talked about.

Hector Torres doesn't like to talk about his tour in Vietnam, either. But he does recall seeing as many as 20 soldiers blown to bits when the enemy ambushed the truck in front of his. Before he returned home, Torres earned the Bronze Star for heroism. When he retired from the Army in 1998, Torres had served 27 years. He is still affiliated with the military, working as a civilian director of logistics at the U.S. Southern Command in Miami.

Vieques in the crossfire

" Puerto Rico is 100 percent patriotic," Torres said. "When the call goes out, we answer the call. I don't think anybody can question that."

For 60 years, the U.S. Navy has staged bombing exercises on the small island 10 miles off Puerto Rico 's east coast. Some in Puerto Rico have always opposed the Navy exercises there. But the death of David Sanes, the civilian killed in 1999, galvanized activists who wanted the Navy to give up the range and train elsewhere.

The Navy steadfastly maintains that the training on Vieques is vital to the nation's combat readiness.

In November residents of Vieques will vote on a referendum. Their choices: the Navy pulls out in 2003, or the Navy resumes live-fire training and Vieques gets $50 million in economic incentives.

On a recent Sunday in Hollywood, Roberto Rodriguez Camacho brought some newsletters from the Veterans Administration to a meeting of the Association of United Puerto Ricans of Florida, known by its initials in Spanish as ABUFI.

He served 14 months as a medic in Vietnam and a total of 24 years all over the world. After leaving the service, he worked at the VA for 15 years more, retiring in 1995.

"I'm American. A-me-ri-ca-no," he said, opening his tan blazer, and thumping at his heart. "You understand?"

While the veterans, ABUFI members or not, were united in their patriotism, their viewpoints differ on the Navy's future on Vieques .

Torres married his wife on Vieques in 1992 and credits the Navy with protecting the island's environment and responding to natural disasters. He also says the Navy has worn out its welcome and that it no longer needs Vieques as a training ground.

Others, like Santiago, Rodriguez Camacho, who had a military career, see the protesters as people looking for attention because they want independence from the United States.

"It's a political trick," said Rodriguez Camacho.

ABUFI member and World War II veteran Jose S. Garcia, 79, also blames Independista "instigators" for stirring up trouble.

`We've paid our dues'

Rafael Mendez, 54, a Vietnam veteran who lives in Coral Springs and works as a therapist at the VA Hospital in West Palm Beach, is troubled by the impact the bombing has had on the environment.

" Vieques is a tremendous abuse. They're not listening to the people, they're ruining the environment there and they have to go," he said of the Navy.

But Santiago thinks many people recognize the damage the bombing has brought. He owns a business, Mister Trophy, with a partner from Vieques . He hears him call home, talk to family members who have discovered new cancers in their bodies.

"His mother has had two or three kinds," Santiago says.

Raul Charneco, 61, echoes Santiago's health concerns. "We need to understand that this is a problem of health."

At his Pembroke Pines home, Rodriquez Camacho said people get carried away with politics. The military has held bombing exercises in Guam and New Mexico. Why not Puerto Rico , if it is for the defense of the country? he said.

His wife cocked her head. Sixty years of bombing has led to a high incidence of disease on Vieques , said Aida Rodriguez, 59, who was an interpreter at the federal courts in Puerto Rico . After so many years," she said, "don't you think we've paid our dues?"


Puerto Ricans became eligible for the draft during World War I. About 8,000 were drafted. Another 10,000 volunteered. 65,000 served in World War II, including about 200 women. 61,000 served in Korea; 756 died. 48,000 served in Vietnam; 270 died. 190,000 have served in the U.S. military. More than 6,200 were wounded in action and almost 1,250 have been killed in service to the United States. In 1993, Domingo Arroyo, a Marine from Puerto Rico , was the first of 44 American soldiers killed in Somalia. Four Puerto Ricans have been awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest military award for valor. SOURCE: American Veterans for Puerto Rico Self-determination

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