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The Record, Bergen County, NJ

Doing Their Duty


March 24, 2003
Copyright © 2003
North Jersey Media Group Inc.. All rights reserved. 

A president they couldn't elect can send them off to a war authorized by a Congress where they have no vote. But Puerto Rican soldiers still call it "an opportunity."

Away from their Caribbean homeland, some 500 members of the Puerto Rican National Guard were making sure they could put on a gas mask within nine seconds. Until recently, they were training for chemical and biological warfare at Fort Dix.

"We are proud to be American soldiers representing Puerto Rico," said Sgt. Hector Cullar, 45. "Very proud."

They have been shipped off again, to parts unknown, to defend a nation that sometimes forgets they even exist. But that's what makes them feel they have something to prove.

"For us Puerto Ricans, this is a great opportunity, because we are getting a chance to demonstrate that we are as good as any other soldier in this country," said Sgt. David Rivera, 34.

They are citizen soldiers, leaving families behind. "But since Puerto Rico is part of this country," Rivera added, "we are here to defend their rights and their freedom."

As they took off their masks, they expressed pride in having been called to active duty at a time when war with Iraq was anticipated. This is something Puerto Ricans have always done - with great courage.

Since World War I, 197,034 Puerto Ricans have served in U.S. wars and conflicts. Of these, 6,219 were wounded and 1,124 died in battle. Puerto Ricans have been awarded four Medals of Honor, the nation's highest decoration for valor. That is more per capita than any state but Hawaii.

Those figures are just for Puerto Ricans from the island. They do not include thousands of mainland Puerto Ricans who, like many other Latino Americans, went to war for a country where they are often treated like foreigners.

According to the 2000 census, there are 146,086 veterans living on the island. Most of them served during World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, and Somalia.

"My grandfather served, my father served, my uncles served, my brothers served, and here I am," said Staff Sgt. Jesus Reyes, 39. "It's a matter of pride."

According to news reports, 2,995 members of the island's reserves and National Guard have been activated for the Iraq campaign. This puts Puerto Rico proportionally ahead of 37 states in the number of call-ups.

Nevertheless, on the island, military mobilizations always bring to the forefront the complicated relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States. Under the commonwealth arrangement, Puerto Ricans are American citizens. But they cannot vote for president and they do not have voting representatives in Congress.

Since the United States invaded the Spanish colony in 1898, the nation's military has been the subject of countless protests while still attracting thousands of loyal recruits. In recent years, Puerto Rico has witnessed a strong anti-military movement, due to an ultimately successful campaign to stop the U.S. Navy from conducting practice bombings on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques. The Navy has stopped the air raids and plans to pull out of Vieques.

Some of the activists from those protests are now demonstrating against the war with Iraq.

But as they have throughout history, Puerto Rican soldiers remain committed to defending democracy and freedom.

"Like everywhere else, there is always a minority that doesn't agree," Lt. Juan Estevez said. "But there are many Puerto Ricans proud to be doing our duty."

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