Proud legacy: Many Latinos have served in military

May 29 2011 - 10:46pm

Images

(ERIN HOOLEY/Standard-Examiner) Bob Ramos served in both the Army and Air Force. He served in World War II and during the Korean War.
(ERIN HOOLEY/Standard-Examiner) Bob Ramos is third from bottom right in this group photo with his unit in the Philippines.
(ERIN HOOLEY/Standard-Examiner) Juan Gutierrez holds a picture of when he joined the Army in 1964. He is the president of the Utah Chapter of the American GI Forum.
(ERIN HOOLEY/Standard-Examiner) Bob Ramos served in both the Army and Air Force. He served in World War II and during the Korean War.
(ERIN HOOLEY/Standard-Examiner) Bob Ramos is third from bottom right in this group photo with his unit in the Philippines.
(ERIN HOOLEY/Standard-Examiner) Juan Gutierrez holds a picture of when he joined the Army in 1964. He is the president of the Utah Chapter of the American GI Forum.

Flipping through pages of soldiers who have lost their lives over the last decade in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is easy to find Spanish surnames.

Riverdale resident Norberto Ramos clips the pages from a veterans magazine. Himself a veteran of three wars, he said it is important to remember those who have fallen for their country.

"War is war, and it is nasty," Ramos said.

Ramos is one of many Latinos who have risked their lives to defend the United States since the beginning of the nation's history.

"You say something about being a patriot, I'm a patriot," Ramos said.

He was born and raised in Texas, in a town with an active Ku Klux Klan, before he was drafted in 1943.

Working since age 10 to help support his mom and five siblings, he remembers working in restaurants were he was not allowed to eat in the dining room.

"We didn't know any different," Ramos said.

The country was deeply segregated, but as war raged in Europe and the Pacific, many were called to fill the ranks.

"When I reached the age of 18 and I got drafted, everything changed," Ramos said. "All of the sudden, I became a U.S. citizen."

Unlike back home, Latinos and American Indians served in the same foxholes as their white counterparts. The U.S. military considered Latinos to be White.

By the end of World War II, 12 Latinos earned the Medal of Honor. An exact number of Latinos who served is not recorded, because at the time Latinos were not classified by their ethnicity.

Among the Medal of Honor recipients is Jose Valdez -- a U.S. Army private first class born in New Mexico, but who entered service in Pleasant Grove.

In 1946, Valdez gave his life repulsing an overwhelming German force so his comrades could escape near Rosencratz, France. His service is recorded in stone at Memorial Grove Park in Salt Lake City.

U.S. Marine Corps veteran Staff Sgt. Rudy Olivares joined shortly before Operation Desert Storm in the 1990s and continued serving his country.

He returned to fight in the Middle East after 9/11.

Latinos have a warrior spirit, he said, which is evident in the large percentage of Latinos he served with from across the United States, and even immigrants who see service as a path to citizenship.

"We're seen as a breed of fighters, we fight for what we believe in and we don't back down," Olivares said, "Everyone else in the military sees that as well, but for them they respect it and they feed of it as well. They know that the fighting spirit is one that gets you past the hardest obstacles."

Ogden resident Tony Villarruel served as a door- gunner on a helicopter, earning the rank of U.S. Army specialist in Vietnam.

"We served proudly, we served honorably. There are many of us who did things that we were supposed to be doing," Villaruel said. "They've given medals out to a few Hispanics, and they were deserving."

Through the 1960s and into the 1970s, prejudice continued against Latinos.

Racism at the time was pretty blatant, more so against blacks, but Latinos were stuck in the middle, Villarruel said. In the military, however, the soldiers became a brotherhood.

"When you were in combat, you were all on the same team, the same side," Villaruel said.

Yet years ago, many veterans returned to racist conditions.

To ensure they were represented properly when they returned home, Dr. Hector Perez Garcia, an Army veteran medical doctor, founded the American GI Forum in 1948.

Starting in Texas, the organization helped Latinos lobby for military benefits and get an education.

Juan Gutierrez, the state commander for the American GI Forum in Utah, is proud of Latino contributions to the military.

"You guys have to understand that we Latinos, Hispanos, people with Spanish names have always fought for this country," Gutierrez said. "We Latinos have contributed from the beginning to the present."

By the time Olivares went into the military, many things had changed, both in the country and in the Marine Corps.

In his experience, Olivares said, no matter the racial prejudices Latinos faced back home, in his "beloved Corps" everyone is a "shade of green."

Being thrust into a situation where a solider has no choice but to trust the person next to him eliminates a lot of prejudices.

The representation of Latinos in the different ranks has changed as well.

Back in World War II, a Latino officer was unheard of. That continued almost to the present day.

Latinos have been well- represented in the non- commissioned officer ranks, Olivares said, but recently, with a lagging economy and a decade into two wars, many soldiers are going to college and making careers in the military as officers.

"The officer ranks are being represented a lot more," Olivares said. "There are still a lot more Latinos in the enlisted ranks, but that's changing quite a bit actually."

Olivares is proud of the contributions Latinos have made to the military. It is important to remember all those who have served in the past, are on active duty now and have given their lives for their country.

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