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Monday, November 11, 2013

Families Seek Congressional Medal For All-Hispanic Unit

World War II veteran Luis Rodriguez, 91, is pictured with his daughters, Judy and Beth. (Lucy Nalpathanchil/WNPR)

World War II veteran Luis Rodriguez, 91, is pictured with his daughters, Judy and Beth. (Lucy Nalpathanchil/WNPR)

The history of the U.S military includes contributions from segregated units. One unit many Americans know little about are the Borinqueneers. They were an all-Hispanic unit in the U.S Army that served in World Wars I and II. But it was the Korean War when the unit rose to prominence. As Lucy Nalpathanchil of WNPR reports, there’s a growing movement to honor these veterans with the Congressional Gold Medal.

Efrain Santiago, grandfather of Frank Medina, was a Borinqueneer. (Courtesy of Frank Medina)

Efrain Santiago, grandfather of Frank Medina, was a Borinqueneer. (Courtesy of Frank Medina)

Frank Medina is an Iraq War veteran and former Army Captain living in Orlando, Florida. He graduated from West Point and knows everything there is to know about the Borinqueneers. The unit’s history is part of his family roots.

“The 65th infantry regiment is the pride of Puerto Rico”

Medina was born in Ponce. His grandfather Efrain Santiago was one of more than 20,000 Puerto Rican men who enlisted in the U.S Army as early as World War I. The 65th Infantry regiment became known as the Borinqueneers because almost all the men came from Borinquen, the indigious Taino name for Puerto Rico.

“My grandfather came back from the Korean War not the same man. There are a lot of veterans from all wars that come back not the same they seek closure, emotional closure.

Medina’s grandfather has since passed away, but when the former Army captain was at a veterans’ recognition event last year, some Borinqueneers brought up a good point. Why hadn’t their regiment received the Congressional Gold Medal like the Tuskegee Airmen or the Montford Point Marines, other segregated units.

Frank Medina, former Army Captain, is pictured while serving in Iraq. (Courtesy of Frank Medina)

Frank Medina, former Army Captain, is pictured while serving in Iraq. (Courtesy of Frank Medina)

So Medina formed a grassroots organization to lobby legislators. He says the honor is justified given the valor the Borinqueneers showed on the battlefield during the Korean War.

“They were masters of hand-to-hand combat and war fighting skills evident in the last recorded regimental bayonet assault against enemy forces, overtaking a key Chinese hill position. They were one of the key elements that defended the evacuation path of the 1st marine division in one of the greatest military withdrawals in military history.”

During their service, they faced discrimination and setbacks. Language barriers between the soldiers and their commanding officers were problematic and reflected on the regiment cohesiveness near the end of the war. Some members of the unit were court-martialed on charges of desertion and disobeying orders of superior officers. At times, the unit also lacked the proper equipment during the cold Korean winter and other necessities like ammunition.

Despite the struggles, the Borinqueneers were proud of their service. They say it was proof of Puerto Rico’s loyalty to the continental U.S.

Just ask 91-year-old Luis Rodriguez, who shows me his hometown on a map. “You can see the mountains up there, that’s where I come from — Caya, Puerto Rico”

The children of Rodriguez say their father doesn’t leave home without a particular blue hat. Across the front of the cap “WW2 and Korean War veteran” are stitched in thick gold lettering. In his living room a picture hangs prominently on the wall. It’s a younger Sergeant First Class Luis Rodriguez, who was honorably discharged in 1958. He says he’d welcome the recognition from Congress

“If they give it to me they did a good job by saying thanks God, you did your job. I came back alive and I can’t complain at all.”

Supporters of the Congressional medal for the 65th say Rodriguez is one of an estimated 500 Borinqueneers still alive today. Time is running out for lawmakers to pass the bill awarding the unit with the Congressional Gold medal.

The family of 93-year-old Felix Rosado Melendez is watching to see what happens. At the patriarch’s wake earlier this month, Migdalia Morales says her father served proudly and would have appreciated the honor.

“He was very proud of his regiment, he always wore on Veteran’s Day, he always wore his hat on Veterans day and his American flag on his wheelchair … so he hoped that they would get that medal.”

It remains to be seen if Congress will approve the recognition. The Borinqueneers Congressional Gold Medal Alliance says only half of the votes have been secured in the House, and in the Senate, only 21 Senators have pledged their support

Reporter


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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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