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Record Numbers Of Puerto Ricans Fighting For U.S .Able To Fight, Unable To Vote From Nearly Every State, Death In Iraq
Record Numbers Of Puerto Ricans Fighting For U.S.
Whether out of patriotism or for the decent pay, more Puerto Rican men and women than ever have been mobilized to fight for the United States in Iraq.
BY NANCY SAN MARTIN
21 January 2004
SALINAS, Puerto Rico - As a series of booms sent soldiers in camouflage uniforms into a frenzy, one young reservist yelled out: ``Help me, I'm wounded in the leg.''
Steps away, a captain barked orders into a radio: ''We have three injured,'' he said, before scolding a soldier. ''You got a neck injury because you were standing up.'' Minutes later, a Black Hawk helicopter landed to collect the ``casualties.''
Once again, Puerto Ricans in the National Guard and Army Reserves are training to join Washington's wars, this time in Iraq, as part of a long tradition of service in the U.S. military here, where young men and women join out of patriotism and to take advantage of the decent pay, college subsidies and early retirement benefits.
Currently, some 4,800 Puerto Rican Guardsmen and reservists are on active duty -- 825 of them serving in Iraq -- the largest number ever mobilized in U.S. history. Thousands more Puerto Ricans serve in the regular Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps.
Thirteen soldiers from this U.S. territory, a Spanish-speaking island of about four million people, have been killed in Iraq. The same ratio of casualties for the entire United States would mean 942 dead. But so far, U.S. casualties stand at about 500.
But even with the rising dead and wounded, anti-war sentiments have been muffled. A sense of obligation to serve reigns over the Commonwealth. The troops' departures, deaths and returns all have been extensively covered by the local media, but there has been no major public outcry against the war in Iraq.
''For me, it's an honor to serve my country,'' said Staff Sgt. José Hernández, 26, of the 266th Ordnance Battalion, who served four years in the Army and five in the Army reserves. ``This is kind of exciting because you stop your ordinary life to do something different.''
GETTING READY TO GO
Some of the 1,000 National Guardsmen and reservists now training are expected to ship out within weeks for year-long deployments, mostly in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan. They are honing their combat skills at Camp Santiago, a U.S. Army training facility on Puerto Rico's southern coast.
Some are anxious to go.
''I want whatever is meant to happen to happen fast,'' said reservist Alex Rancier, 24, who enlisted just a year ago. ``At the moment, it's like being stuck in the middle -- you're neither over there nor here. I want to go and get this over with already.''
At Camp Santiago, the men and women headed overseas undergo four days of intense training that includes lessons on everything from how to conduct vehicle inspections to reacting to car bombs, violent demonstrations and mortar attacks, said Capt. Dan Vogel, the officer in charge of training.
''We're trying to set up scenarios that troops will encounter in Iraq,'' Vogel said. ``It's nonconventional fighting that we're trying to prepare for. The biggest challenge is the threat and trying to combat that threat.''
LESSONS OF WAR
At least 250 soldiers have been through the course over the past two weeks, and hundreds more will go through similar training through February. Those with combat experience said the exercises have provided the kind of refresher courses necessary to survive in the Middle East and Southwest Asia.
''It's very realistic,'' said Command Sgt. Maj. Héctor Arocho Pérez, 57, a 24-year veteran of the military and reserves. ``I went to Vietnam when I was 18 years old and only with basic training. So everything I learned, I learned there.''
Among the hard lessons of that war was dealing with death.
''When I entered my first mission in the jungles, 114 had been killed. When I saw all those people, I started crying,'' Arocho said, adding that a higher-ranking soldier helped him regain his composure and continue to fight as a matter of survival.
''Fifty-seven Puerto Ricans went with me,'' Arocho said. ``Only six returned.''
Now with the 125th Military Police Battalion, Arocho is determined to see all his troops return home safely. He currently has about 80 under his command but expects to be part of a 700-strong battalion once he is deployed.
''I'm going to use all the experience that I have to get these people back,'' said Arocho, who has served in the National Guard since 1980 and retired as a Puerto Rico police captain a year ago. ``That's my job.''
Specialist Wanda García Méndez, 44, spent eight months in Saudi Arabia, returned in October and was notified in November that she would soon be heading off again. The mother of four said her family is not happy about the back-to-back departures, but ``they prefer for me to go now while they are still used to me not being here.''
The Humvee driver joined the Army in 1978, signing up for six years, four as active duty and two as a reserve. She said she decided to enlist because at the time she was bored with business administration studies in college.
''I needed some action in my life,'' said the fast-speaking García, a woman of medium stature with as much spunk as a teenager.
After she completed her service, she married and had four children, now aged 20, 18, 17 and 14. As her children grew into young adults, García again found herself growing bored, so she joined the National Guard in 1999.
And now she's getting ready to go off to war again.
''I'm ready. I know what I have to do,'' said García, dressed in full combat gear and with a rifle slung over her right shoulder. ``I'm pretty sure I'm going to come back. I love my family very much. Momma will be back.''
Unable To Vote
25 January 2004
Re the Jan. 21 article Record number of Puerto Ricans fighting for U.S.: The story doesn't mention that these brave Puerto Ricans soldiers, who have spilled their blood in every war that this country has been involved since 1917, are still considered third-class citizens.
Puerto Ricans cannot vote for the same people who send them to war, the president and members of Congress. This is an injustice not only to brave Puerto Rican soldiers, but to all American citizens who live in Puerto Rico.
ROBERT MUNOZ, Miami
From Nearly Every State, Death In Iraq
Number Of Grieving Families Highest Since Vietnam War
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
17 January 2004
LONG POND, Pa. (AP) -- Sandra Puello is strong for her children. But when they're at school and she's alone in her big new house in the Poconos, she inevitably thinks about her husband, and breaks down.
Six months ago, Army Sgt. Jaror C. Puello-Coronado, a military policeman, was guarding a base in southern Iraq when an out-of-control dump truck hit and killed him. He is one of 28 from Pennsylvania who have died in the war with Iraq, where the U.S. death toll reached 500 Saturday.
It is the largest number of American military casualties in a single conflict since Vietnam.
``We are losing all these lives, for what?'' Puello says. ``They bring back soldiers in body bags and what do you get from the government, the president? 'I'm sorry.' That's not going to bring him back.''
The dead hailed from every state except Alaska, and also came from Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and American Samoa. But Puello-Coronado's adopted state, Pennsylvania, has paid an especially steep price. Only California and Texas, the two most populous states, have lost more men and women in Iraq than Pennsylvania, which ranks sixth in population.
``The people from Pennsylvania come from a veteran's tradition -- our fathers were, our grandfathers were, our brothers were, our uncles were,'' said Keith Martin, a decorated Vietnam veteran and the state's homeland security director.
Of the nation's 26 million veterans, 1.2 million live in Pennsylvania. And the Veterans of Foreign Wars claims more members in Pennsylvania, at 134,000, than in any other state.
The U.S. death toll in Iraq reached 500 Saturday when a bomb exploded under an armored vehicle that was searching for land mines and roadside bombs north of Baghdad. Three American soldiers and two Iraqi civil defense fighters were killed, and two U.S. soldiers were wounded.
Others were killed in combat during the early stages of the war, others by Iraqi insurgents after Saddam Hussein's regime crumbled. More than 150 deaths were accidental, including an Army captain who was electrocuted; illness and disease claimed others. More than 20 committed suicide.
The first coalition casualties of the war occurred March 20, the day the U.S.-led invasion began, when a U.S. Marine helicopter crashed in Kuwait, killing all eight British soldiers and four Americans aboard.
Two days later, Sgt. Hasan Akbar allegedly tossed a grenade into a military tent in Kuwait, killing two members of the 101st Airborne Division and wounding 14 others. Akbar faces two counts of premeditated murder.
The toll also includes 11 of rescued POW Jessica Lynch's comrades, killed in an ambush on their maintenance convoy.
Several of the recently widowed have called Gold Star Wives, an organization for spouses of military dead, seeking to share their grief with someone who has been through the ordeal, said Rachel Clinkscale, the group's chairwoman, whose husband was killed in Vietnam.
``I know how (a new widow) feels,'' Clinkscale said. ``Unless you've gotten that telegram, you really don't know.''
Most of the deaths in Iraq occurred after President Bush declared an end to major combat on May 1.
On July 13, Puello-Coronado was guarding the entrance to a military base in Ad Diwaniyah, about 100 miles south of Baghdad, when he spotted a dump truck whose driver had lost control. Puello-Coronado pushed one soldier out of the way and warned another, but was unable to save himself, according to the military. ``His ultimate sacrifice saved the lives of his friends,'' a military account said.
In his last letter home, Puello-Coronado urged his wife to look to the heavens.
``When you sit quietly under the moonlight sky, look up and find the North Star. I will be looking at it also, and imagine me next to you, even though we are far apart,'' he wrote. ``You can always find me in the star.''
Puello calls her husband a hero, but that hasn't made his death any easier to bear. She said she was so angry one day that she went outside and chopped down all the trees in front of the house.
For her children, the loss of their father was a tremendous blow. Seven-year-old Jade cries often. Sean, 10, writes in his journal that their family got a raw deal. Like his two younger siblings, 15-year-old Victor gets counseling at school.
Two days before Christmas, more than 20 men from Puello-Coronado's unit showed up at his wife's house to pay their respects. Puello said she hopes for the safe return of the rest of the 125,000 troops still stationed in Iraq, grieving anew when she hears of each new fatality.
``I think I'll be happy, at ease and at peace when I hear they're coming home,'' she said.
State - By - State Breakdown of Iraq Deaths
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
17 January 2004
Breakdown of U.S. casualties in Iraq by state, according to Department of Defense records or family members:
Alabama - 13
Arizona - 13
Arkansas - 3
California - 55
Colorado - 8
Connecticut - 5
District of Columbia - 2
Delaware - 3
Florida - 16
Georgia - 15
Hawaii - 1
Idaho - 4
Illinois - 20
Indiana - 16
Iowa - 9
Kansas - 5
Kentucky - 4
Louisiana - 5
Maine - 2
Massachusetts - 9
Maryland - 5
Michigan - 20
Minnesota - 3
Mississippi - 10
Missouri - 10
Montana - 1
North Carolina - 13
North Dakota - 3
New Hampshire - 1
New Jersey - 10
New Mexico - 1
New York - 21
Nebraska - 6
Nevada - 3
Ohio - 15
Oklahoma - 7
Oregon - 8
Pennsylvania - 28
Rhode Island - 3
South Carolina - 12
South Dakota - 4
Tennessee - 12
Texas - 40
Utah - 4
Virginia - 13
Vermont - 5
West Virginia - 1
Washington - 7
Wisconsin - 9
Wyoming - 4
American Samoa - 2 Puerto Rico - 7