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As Numbers Grow, Recognizing Generations Of Latino Vets

Image: 65th Infantry in Korean War

Battle-weary soldiers of the primarily Puerto Rican 65th Infantry unit in Korea, June 1951. U.S. Army

As the nation honors its veterans, government officials point to the growing numbers of Latinos in the military, while Hispanic scholars and historians remind us of the generations of Hispanics who have proudly served our country.

Latinos make up about 6 percent of U.S. military veterans, according to a September 2014 report by the National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics. Although this number may seem low, it is rapidly changing.

The population of Hispanic veterans is expected to double in the next ten years, according to Barbara Ward, Director of the Department of Veterans Affairs Center for Minority Veterans. The increase can be seen over time; while Hispanics were 2.6 percent of World War II veterans, they make up 12.2 percent of veterans in the post-9/11 period.

“That means we have to do a better job in our positive outreach to Hispanic veterans wherever they are," said Ward. "We do this through our Hispanic Liaison, and we have 300 minority veterans program coordinators that are based in regional offices," she said.

The Latino veteran population is expected to double in the next 10 years.

Ward said her agency works with civic groups including the American G.I. Forum and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), to spread the word about programs and services available to Latino veterans.

By certain measures, Hispanic veterans are doing better than their non-veteran counterparts. Veterans Affairs statistics show that Hispanic veterans have a lower unemployment rate, lower uninsured rate, and a lower poverty rate than Hispanic non-veterans. The median personal income for Hispanic veterans is more than twice that of Hispanic non-veterans.

However, Hispanics remain under-represented in the military at the officer level. Latinos are about 15 percent of the population, but only five percent of the officers’ corps in the armed forces. A 2011 Department of Defense report, “Diversity Leadership for the 21st Century Military,” found that “top military leaders are representative neither of the population they serve nor of the forces they lead.”

Image: Alvino Mendoza
Veteran Alvino Mendoza participates in the Take a Vet to School Day event at Metz Elementary School in Austin, Texas on Nov. 7, 2008. University of Texas

In terms of accessing resources for those returning home, Veterans Affairs officials acknowledge that the recent scandals in the VA hospital system have given the department negative publicity.

“From my perspective, we have to own up that there have been problems,” said Ward. “Going forward, we want to put the veteran at the center of everything we do; we want to hear from the vets on what is important to them, not just what is important to us," said Ward. She added priorities include ensuring veterans get timely attention and proper referrals when needed.

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Dr. Unchenna S. Uchendu, Chief Officer of the Office of Health Equity, Veterans Health Administration, pointed out that Hispanic veterans access VA health care at comparable rates to other demographics. “There is no other system (than ours) with so many points of contact a day,” said Dr. Uchendu. “We serve 240,000 people a day in our system… Overall we have touched the lives of so many, on any given day, and most of them have positive outcomes,” she said.

Xiomara A. Sosa, who runs a nonprofit service and advocacy organization for veterans, thinks Hispanic veterans face unique challenges. Latino veterans tend to come from very united and large families, so it is important when they return home to reunite them with their communities. “However, the services available do not tend to be culturally sensitive or appropriate to our cultural norms," said Sosa.

By certain measures, Hispanic veterans are doing better than their non-veteran counterparts. Latino vets have lower unemployment, uninsurance and poverty rates than Hispanic non-veterans. Yet veterans' successful readjustment depends on community support, experts say.

"Our families require language issues to be addressed and second- and third-generational competency to support our veterans," Sosa added. "Our cultural norms and family expectations are different in many ways and we need to be able to reach everyone so that the veteran can readjust and reintegrate to civilian life as best as possible."

Sosa, a veteran herself, thinks that most members of the public do not show enough support for veterans. “Civilians in general are very disconnected from veterans. This is an integral part of challenges veterans face when they return from service and attempt to reintegrate,” she said. “Successful readjustment requires that their communities embrace them, respect them, and support them in that process. But as Americans, we have a long way to go in that area.”

Some researchers have devoted themselves to recognizing the contributions of Latino veterans. At the University of Texas at Austin, Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez has been recording the stories of Latino veterans for fifteen years for the VOCES Oral History Project. “We started in 1999, so this year is our quinceañera,” she said. “We have interviewed 769 World War II veterans and civilians of that period, 93 from Vietnam, and 134 from the Vietnam period.”

Image: Joe Bernal
Veteran Joe Bernal at age 17 in Salinas, California on Sept. 1, 1945. University of Texas

Rivas-Rodriguez' project has amassed a trove of interviews and digitized photographs that are used in books, documentaries, photo exhibits and academic research. “Our mission is to create a better understanding of the Latino experience during those years,” she said.

In 2007, when Ken Burns unveiled his landmark PBS documentary on World War II – a documentary that included no depiction of Latinos – Rivas-Rodriguez protested this omission through the Defend The Honor campaign (Burns later agreed to make changes to his program). Rivas-Rodriguez says that her goal is to ensure that the contributions of Hispanic veterans are not forgotten. “We have gone beyond the call of duty, Latinos have been loyal Americans, and we should just be part of the historical record.”

In New York, filmmaker Noemi Figueroa Soulet spent nine years turning her interest in the U.S. Army’s 65th Infantry Regiment into a documentary. “The 65th Regiment was unique because it was a segregated unit, the only all-Hispanic unit in the history of the U.S. Army,” she said. “It was comprised primarily of Puerto Rican soldiers, along with continental officers. Yet when I first started researching it, I could hardly find any archival material about them – even though they served with great distinction during the Korean War,” she said. Her film, “The Borinqueneers,” premiered on PBS in 2007.

Image: National Puerto Rican Day Parade Veteran's Tribute
The National Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York paid tribute to the members of the 65th Infantry with a float in June 2014. El Pozo Productions
Image: Borinqueneers Honor Ceremony
Borinqueneers Florida Honor Ceremony, Kissimmee Fl. Sept. 2013. Dennis Freytes

More recently, Soulet was involved in the successful campaign to help members of the 65th Regiment receive the Congressional Gold Medal. In June, President Obama awarded the honor to the veterans at a ceremony in Washington D.C.

Soulet said learning about ‘The Borinqueneers’ changed her life. “It gave me a greater appreciation of the sacrifices these men made. I really do see them as heroes, not only in the military but also in life. They were trailblazers. When I started I didn’t understand what it takes to be a soldier. Now I have the greatest respect for all of them.”