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Orlando Sentinel

Reservist Call-Ups Anger Puerto Rican War Foes

By Matthew Hay Brown | Sentinel Staff Writer

December 4, 2003
Copyright ©2003 Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- With criticism here of the war in Iraq growing, nearly 1,000 more military reservists from Puerto Rico will report for active duty Saturday, most headed for the combat zone.

The 12-month call-up of 986 reservists -- the largest activation from this U.S. commonwealth since Sept. 11, 2001 -- comes amid increasing concern about security in Iraq and rising opposition to the involvement of local soldiers there.

Some are urging Gov. Sila M. Calderón to refuse further call-ups of the island's reservists, who are U.S. citizens but have no voice in setting war policy.

"Puerto Ricans belong to the U.S. armed forces, but our people never have been consulted about the desirability of participating in the wars in which that nation has been involved," said lawyer Carlos Mondríguez, president of the Puerto Rico Bar Association. "In that situation, our young people find themselves in an indefensible position."

Brig. Gen. José Rosado, commander of the U.S. Army Reserve in Puerto Rico, said citizen-soldiers accept the possibility that they will be deployed when they volunteer to serve.

"As soon as they are ready and the equipment can be transported, they will leave," Rosado said.

Most will be sent to Iraq or Kuwait to rotate in for units now serving in the war zone, he said. Others may go to Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia.

Capt. Javier Rivera, a 35-year-old father of three girls, said he still had not told his youngest that he could be headed for one of the most dangerous regions in the world.

"My wife doesn't see it as a good thing," he said. "My 15-year-old daughter cried at the beginning. The 12-year-old has taken it quite well."

Members of the engineering, communications, ordnance, postal-service and mortuary-affairs units bring to 2,870 the number of island reservists that have been called up to serve in the war on terror. They join at least 4,700 Puerto Rico National Guard troops in what has been the largest mobilization of troops from the island since the Korean War.

Puerto Rico ranks ninth among states and territories in participation. If Puerto Rico were a state, it would rank 27th in population.

In total, the Pentagon has nearly 165,000 members of the Guard and Reserves on active duty, either abroad or in the United States.

According to a tally kept by local media, 13 Puerto Ricans -- including those from the commonwealth as well as island natives who were living on the mainland -- are among the 441 American service members who the Pentagon says have died in Iraq as of Wednesday.

Given those numbers, the bar association this week urged Calderón to refuse further deployments, to do everything necessary to bring Puerto Rican soldiers home and to study how the islanders are being activated and utilized.

"Our main concern is the big proportion of Puerto Rican deaths over there," Mondríguez said. "We think that the Army sends our soldiers to the most risky operations."

Calderón, who has no authority over such deployments, has not commented on the bar association's resolution. Rosado said he had not heard from her on the matter.

"We don't have any request from the commonwealth government asking for the return of the soldiers," he said.

Puerto Rico has a long tradition of military service, complicated by its unique political relationship with the United States. Island soldiers fight for a commander-in-chief they do not elect, authorized by a Congress in which they have no vote.

And still they enlist, earn commendations and suffer casualties, often at levels disproportionate to their numbers. Among the 50 states and other U.S. territories, Puerto Rico boasts the 17th-largest National Guard. The percentage of reservists exceeds the national average.

Wire services were used in this report.

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