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.

Joe Barrera: Veterans’ Day is about Creating Community

In 370BC a Greek Army ventured into Mesopotamia, lured into supporting a claimant to the throne by the promise of money and booty. How the Greeks managed to extricate themselves from a hopeless situation in what is now Iraq and Syria is the subject of the famous account, The Anabasis of Xenophon. “Anabasis” means “a journey out of.” The story is that Cyrus, the pretender to the throne of the Persian empire, is killed by his rival and the Greeks find that they have backed the wrong faction. This, of course, sounds familiar. We are now in the same position as Xenophon, the wise and courageous soldier who leads the Greeks out of the trap. But unlike Xenophon we have no exit strategy to free ourselves from the Iraqi and Syrian quagmire.

Halicarnassus (Anabasis)
Go to the Military Veterans’ Community Dialogues

No doubt about it. We are stuck in Mesopotamia, not to mention Afghanistan. In my opinion it happened because we misunderstood the desires of those countries to create communities according to their own rules. The same for our tragic misadventure in Vietnam. The task for us now is to extricate ourselves by rediscovering our own rules for community. I don’t want to make too much of the analogy but the lesson is clear. Xenophon’s Ten-Thousand fought and won their battles and survived the long journey out of the desert by the unity forged in comradeship. They were a small army, but they acted more like a community, a nation on the march through hostile territory.

Community is essential. This is true in both the military and civilian spheres. Armies imbued with comradeship, the military equivalent of community, win battles against much stronger foes. Civil societies succeed, but only if they are true communities. During this season, when we honor veterans and the society they have protected, it’s good to reflect on this. Philosophers have described community in many ways. It’s useful to read what they say, especially those who write about human communities from the experience of war. J. Glenn Gray, the eminent Colorado College philosopher, in his book The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle says this about the communal spirit, what he calls “love as concern:”

The characteristic mood that accompanies love as concern is neither deep joy nor unrestrained grief, so often typical of erotic love. Concerned love knows relief and it knows anxiety in its depths, but seldom does it put everything at stake on the preservation of this or that life or treasure. Its care is for the whole and not the part.

The essence of community is a love concerned with the whole. Concerned love leads to the building of community after the destruction of war. Fortunately for human beings, most soldiers are not made into habitual killers by war, even if they are soldiers who have killed. They are capable of living civilian lives after war. Gray, the WWII veteran, is correct about this, even if many veterans doubt it. Other writers have sought to define community. Sebastian Junger, who was an embedded journalist with the 173rd Airborne Brigade in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan and made a documentary about the experience entitled “Restrepo,” defines “concerned love” in a different way, the way of male bonding. In

his book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Junger discusses a type of love among soldiers. The men form the ultimate in male bonding, a brotherhood which only men in battle can form. Hardship, such as war, enables soldiers to transcend selfishness. Junger knows from first-hand experience that the bane of modern armies, PTSD, would not exist if soldiers preserved that brotherhood when they return to the civilian world. Unfortunately, combat veterans lose this protection all too quickly. This Veterans’ Day, we should provide veterans the chance to re-enact the communal love of their small units, which existed in our society before we lost our tribal identity.

A good example of communal love is The Warrior Storyfield in Longmont. A group of veterans and artists formed a “tribe,” a sculpture project that gives the unspoken experience of war a voice through the creation of huge iron statues of a dragon, representing homo furens, the ferocious warrior, and the phoenix, representing the resurrection of human love in the soldier when he comes home. Closer to home we have the Veterans Community Dialogues, to be held on November 7.

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