Joe Barrera: On Veterans’ Day: A Tribute to the Valiant

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The ethnic group who won the largest number of Medals of Honor per capita in World War II was the Mexican/Chicano group. This trend continued in subsequent wars. Our city has a connection to a Medal of Honor winner.  He was in the Army Special Forces, the Green Berets, famously promoted by the assassinated John F. Kennedy, whose words, “My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country” have power still.  In the years after Kennedy, the Green Berets were the Americans who asked, “What can we do for our country?” The soldier knew the answer to that question and acted on it. Now there’s a park in Colorado Springs named for him. It’s in the southeast part of town, home to many of his Mexican, Chicano, Latino, Hispanic brethren. It’s been a while since I went there. Maybe it’s time to go back, time to visit Master Sergeant Roy P. Benavidez Park and remember a hero.

Benavidez medals

Roy Benavidez started life as the son of migrant farm workers in south Texas. Like so many other Mexican Americans he saw the Army as a way out of poverty. He found the American dream, and much more, in the Army. He paid a high price for it, overcoming anti-Mexican racism in Texas, but he was always proud to serve his country. During his first tour in Vietnam, he was severely wounded when he stepped on a land mine. He spent six months in the hospital recovering. Then it was back to Vietnam. On May 2, 1968, west of Loc Ninh, a Special Forces Recon unit was inserted into an area controlled by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). They were soon surrounded by the NVA and taking casualties. Roy volunteered to help extract this unit. In an LZ overrun with the enemy, with burning helicopters and dead men all around, he was wounded thirty-seven times, was nearly KIA, but, incredibly, survived. For saving most of the Recon team he was awarded the Medal of Honor, but not until 1981.

It’s good to honor heroes, especially those who like Benavidez suffer rejection but go on to prove their love of country. It’s good to do it because white Americans need to recognize two things: 1) Hispanic valor, and, 2) that Chicanos/Latinos clearly understand the great worth of this country and the freedoms it affords. When I was a combat infantryman in Vietnam most of the Hispanics in my company were men with deep roots in this country, people like me, whose ancestors were in south Texas at least 100-years before the Anglo Americans arrived. But there were “illegal aliens,” too. These were men who had crossed the border illegally for the express purpose of fighting for the United States. They loved the United States. In the Vietnam days Army recruiters could get illegals into the Army, where the majority ended up in the infantry. I hope that those guys all became U.S. citizens, but if not, will they be deported? I’m thinking of the Colorado Springs Valenzuela brothers, two Vietnam veterans who were deported to Mexico.

I have written about my uncle, Reynaldo V. Zuniga, and his exploits with the 23rd Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, during WWII. He was badly wounded during the siege of Brest and nearly died. I grew up hearing his war stories. He had a big influence on me. One of his Army friends, Jose M. Lopez, also was a big influence on me. Not that Jose Lopez told stories. He was a very quiet man. It was my uncle who would tell the stories about Jose, who probably killed more enemy than Audie Murphy, or at least as many. On December 17, 1944, near Krinkeldt, Belgium, Jose M. Lopez killed 132 Germans with his light .50 machinegun. His actions saved the 23rd Regiment from annihilation in the German onslaught known as the Battle of the Bulge and earned him the MOH.

There’s a street in Pueblo, the Latino city, named after Joe P. Martinez. Joe fought with the 7th Infantry Division in the Aleutians campaign, and won the Medal of Honor in that almost forgotten operation. On May 23, 1943 Joe was killed on the island of Attu, leading the 32nd Infantry Regiment up the Holtz-Chichagof Pass against the entrenched Japanese. Pueblo is rightly called the City of Heroes in honor of Joe Martinez and others like him.

This year marks the 100th birthday of the 4th Infantry Division. The 4th Division is based at Fort Carson and in telling the history of the Division the post historian wrote about the Famous Fourth’s 1944 battle in the Huertgen Forest. He mentioned Macario Garcia, a soldier with the 22nd Regiment, who won the MOH for destroying three machinegun nests and killing six Germans. That was one battle he fought, but there was another one which is never mentioned in the citations. When Macario came home to Sugarland, Texas after the war he went out one day dressed in the uniform of his country’s Army, wearing the big blue ribbon and the Medal of honor around his neck. He sat down to eat at a restaurant. The white owner didn’t serve Mexicans and threw him out. Macario performed home front heroics and slugged the man. White soldiers and sailors rallied to Macario’s defense and soon there was a full-fledged brawl. That battle has now been won, paid for with the same blood shed on the battlefields. And that’s why Latinos fight, to win the rights they deserve as first-class citizens.

Joe Barrera, Ph.D.,
Former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS,
and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.

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