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A Tribute to Puerto Rican Veterans

November 11, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

On November 11, our nation celebrates Veteran's Day. We remember the achievements of all the men and women who have served in the United States military, and we thank these heroes - living and dead, warriors and peacekeepers, generals and privates - for their courage and self-sacrifice.

This year, it is more appropriate then ever to recall the contribution of Puerto Ricans to the defense of the United States. 100 years ago, in 1899, the first regiment of Puerto Rican soldiers was organized by the U.S. Army. During the century since then, the people of Puerto Rico have played an ever increasing role in the service of their country. They have fought enemies abroad and distinguished themselves as true American heroes.

The first significant entry of Puerto Ricans into the U.S. Armed Forces came during World War I. In 1917, just weeks before American entry into the war, the Jones Act granted citizenship to the people of Puerto Rico. Soon after, Antonio R. Barcelo, the first President of the Puerto Rican Senate, asked President Wilson to apply the draft to the new American citizens on the island of Puerto Rico. 8,000 were drafted, but few saw active duty. In the segregated armed forces of that time, Puerto Ricans were relegated to a minor role: most were stationed in the Panama Canal Zone.

65,000 Puerto Ricans fought in World War II, including 23,000 volunteers. That war marked an expansion in the strategic importance of Puerto Rican soldiers. Their traditional duty had been defending the Caribbean region; now Puerto Rican men were sent to fight in Europe, where they served with distinction. The women of Puerto Rico did their part as well, serving in the Women's Army Corps.

During the Korean War, Puerto Rican soldiers played a crucial part in several major campaigns. Most notable were the 43,434 Puerto Ricans in the 65th Infantry Regiment. They came to the rescue of a division of marines trapped deep inside North Korea, averting a potential disaster. Their commander, Gen. William W. Harris, later wrote, "No ethnic group has greater pride in itself and its heritage than the Puerto Rican people. Nor have I encountered any that can be more dedicated and zealous in support of the democratic principles for which the United States stands. Many Puerto Ricans have fought to the death to uphold them."

For his service in Korea, Fernando Luis Garcia became the first Puerto Rican recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor. He sacrificed his life for his fellow soldiers, jumping on a hand grenade and absorbing the blast.

In Vietnam, Puerto Ricans once again demonstrated their valor and loyalty. As in Korea, Puerto Rico lost proportionally more men in battle than any of the states of the United States. During the conflict, three Puerto Ricans were awarded the Medal of Honor in recognition of their heroism.

Euripides Rubio was killed while moving a smoke grenade - used by bomber pilots to locate enemy positions - behind the lines of the Vietnamese Liberation Army. Despite multiple gunshot wounds, he succeeded in strategically placing the smoke grenade at the cost of his life. Thanks to his courage, U.S. pilots were able to locate and bomb the enemy position.

Carlos James Lozada also lost his life in Vietnam. During a surprise attack, he single-handedly held off North Vietnamese troops and allowed his company to retreat. He sacrificed his life to save those of his comrades.

Hector Santiago-Colon, another soldier in Vietnam, was the fourth Puerto Rican to receive the Medal of Honor. When a grenade was thrown into his foxhole, he clutched it to his stomach and saved the men around him.

These men are heroes, but they are only four of the many Puerto Ricans to be honored this year, and every year, on Veteran's Day. In the past hundred years, the island of Puerto Rico has contributed 197,100 combatants to the armed forces of the United States. In that time, 6,220 have been wounded; and 1,225 Puerto Ricans have died serving their country.

Complete profiles of all four Puerto Rican Medal of Honor recipients are available on the Herald's Puerto Rico Profiles page.

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