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The News & Observer

New Names On The Roll Of Honor

Rick Martinez

May 26, 2004
Copyright ©2004 The News & Observer. All rights reserved.

RALEIGH--After Ted Koppel read the names of those killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom on ABC's "Nightline," several people remarked to me how noticeable it was that many of the fallen soldiers were Hispanic. This service isn't an anomaly. Hispanics have been defending American ideals since the beginning.

Jorge Farragut was a Spaniard who joined this fledgling country's Navy and fought during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. You're probably more familiar with his son, David Glascow Farragut, best known for his order, "Damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead!" given at the battle of Mobile Bay in 1864. Farragut became this nation's first admiral, a rank bestowed by Congress to reward his Civil War heroism and leadership.

The Confederacy had a few Hispanics on its side, too. Various accounts peg the number between 10,000 and 15,000 -- primarily Texans. The most famous was Santos Benavides, who rose to the rank of colonel and commanded a regiment that bore his name.

While some Confederate Latinos were heroic, at least one was notorious. After the death of her husband in a military accident, Cuban-born Loreta Janeta Velazquez showed up for duty disguised as Confederate Lt. Harry T. Buford. Velazquez/Buford was reported to have seen action in many battles before a doctor treating shrapnel injuries discovered the soldier's feminine side.

It wasn't her only bold move into the male-dominated world. After Velazquez's battlefield expulsion she became a double agent, spying both for the Confederacy and the Union's Secret Service, according to her autobiography.

Nearly 150 years later, Hispanic women have quietly opened a new chapter in Latino military history with their service in the war against terrorism. Here are a few who deserve to be in the opening paragraph.

Fellow soldiers described Spc. Isela Rubalcava as having the perfect temperament for a sergeant. She was tough as nails but as compassionate as a nun. She had a commanding presence, but for the 25-year-old serving in the Army was a matter of duty, not a career.

After her hitch, Rubalcava planned to return to the University of El Paso and put down roots in her hometown. That future ended May 8 when she was killed in a mortar attack near Mosul, Iraq. Back in the states, a group of relatives, including some who are veterans, were engaged in casual conversation on the front lawn when the Army van pulled up in front of the Rubalcava home. They knew the news before the soldiers opened the doors.

Army Pfc. Analaura Esparza-Gutierrez, 21, of Houston, had written to a childhood friend excited about her engagement to a fellow soldier. They planned to marry after her Iraq tour was complete. She had enlisted in the Army, in part, to earn education benefits she planned to use to become a doctor. That dream was extinguished Oct. 1, when the Humvee that Esparza-Gutierrez was driving outside of Tikrit was hit by a roadside explosion that took her life.

Sgt. Melissa Valles, 27, of Eagle Pass, Texas, also joined the Army to pay for an education postponed. She wanted to become a teacher, and attended the University of the Incarnate Word for a year and half before the money ran out. She also supported her mother, a part-time maid. Earning the family's keep wasn't new to Valles. She, her two brothers and a sister had worked in farm fields as far away as Minnesota to earn the family's living.

Valles, a supply sergeant, had spoken to her mother only one day before she was killed by a non-combat gunshot wound.

The Army wasn't like a family for Spc. Frances M. Vega. It was family. Her husband was a soldier. Her father is a retired soldier. Twenty years ago, she was born in an Army hospital. Today, she's buried in a national cemetery in her native Puerto Rico.

Vega was among 16 soldiers killed Nov. 2 when the helicopter she was aboard was shot down outside Fallujah. Although the circumstances of her death have not been fully reported, Vega was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.

This Memorial Day, these Latinas will be among the heroes in my thoughts and prayers.

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