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EFE News Service

Nearly 3,500 Puerto Ricans In Action In Afghanistan, Iraq

November 21, 2003
Copyright ©2003 EFE News Service. All rights reserved.

San Juan, Nov 21 (EFE) - Though they cannot vote for the government that sends them abroad, nearly 3,500 Puerto Rican soldiers have been mobilized for the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, where 13 have lost their lives.

U.S. military commanders estimate that an additional 900 soldiers from the island will be deployed to the Middle East before Christmas as part of a schedule of troop rotations expected to extend into 2005.

The families of soldiers serving in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait are receiving help from the Puerto Rican National Guard, which has established a special support group for them.

Although the exact number of Puerto Rican soldiers wounded in combat has not been disclosed, the number of dead increased significantly in November.

Four soldiers from the island died in a single week in Iraq. Two of them were among the 16 U.S. troops who perished when their helicopter was shot down by guerrillas on Nov. 4.

Of the 13 Puerto Rican fatalities reported to date in Middle East combat, two occurred in Afghanistan and another 11 in Iraq.

The last island native to die in Iraq, in an attack south of Baghdad, was 34-year-old paratrooper Jose Rivera Aponte, the father of three. He was buried with military honors in his hometown of Barranquitas, in central Puerto Rico.

"He liked the army a lot," his friend Gilberto Rivera told EFE. "He liked everything that has to do with armies."

"He had a very difficult childhood. He had to fight for everything he had and became the hero of our family," said Jose's cousin Isabel.

Sonia Santiago, who has a son deployed in Iraq, told local newspapers that "when you hear that another Puerto Rican has died, you ask yourself if it's someone close to you and you feel the family's pain."

This uncertainty is all too familiar for the relatives of the nearly 197,000 Puerto Rican veterans of World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Kosovo and the 1991 Gulf War.

Puerto Rico, which is a U.S. commonwealth but whose residents do not vote in U.S. national elections, has only one 340-bed hospital to take care of ailing veterans.

Neither the facilities nor the number of beds are considered adequate, and Puerto Rico's resident commissioner in Washington, Anibal Acevedo Vila, said a congressional allocation was being sought to improve the facilities at the Veterans' Hospital.

Acevedo Vila also presented a bill to Congress that would earmark $400 million for the construction of a new facility.

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