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Overcoming Discrimination and Adversity: A Nation Honors Puerto Rico’s Veterans

President Barack Obama leads an ovation for the Borinqueneers after he signed H.R. 1726

President Barack Obama leads an ovation for the Borinqueneers after he signed H.R. 1726 to award a Congressional Gold Medal to the 65th Infantry Regiment, known as the Borinqueneers, in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building South Court Auditorium, June 10, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)

President Barack Obama signed into law a bill to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the United States Army’s 65th Infantry Regiment; an Army unit composed mostly of soldiers from the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico called the “Borinqueneers.” They are nicknamed after the native Taino indian name for the island of Puerto Rico - Borinquen. The signing ceremony reminds us all that U.S. citizens from Puerto Rico have built a rich and distinguished record of military service to our country. 

As President Obama highlighted for us:

“Shortly after Puerto Rico became part of the United States in 1898, a regiment of Puerto Rican soldiers was formed, and they served our nation bravely ever since.  In World War I, they defended the homeland and patrolled the Panama Canal Zone.  In World War II, they fought in Europe.  In Korea, they fought in mud and snow.  They are the 65th Infantry Regime, U.S. Army.  They are also known as Borinqueneers”.

The Regiment made its mark for its outstanding combat duty in the Korean War. As one of our nation’s last segregated Army units, it also battled the racially bitter attitudes toward ethnic minorities prevalent in our nation at the time. It wasn’t too long ago in our country that the nation as a whole and the U.S. military in particular, had very different attitudes toward racial and ethnic minorities. The “Borinqueneers” fought the enemy abroad with courage and skill, but also endured and overcame racial discrimination and negative stereotypes at home. This dichotomy- serving proudly while in a segregated Army unit, was the legacy that many soldiers including my Dad and “tío Jose” (uncle Joe) had to bare.

Both Dad and “tío Jose” served in the 65th during World War II.  As a kid, my sister, Dad and I visited “tío Jose” in his home in Bethlehem, PA where after the war, he went to work in the steel mills and settle down. The two brothers would often sit around the kitchen table swapping adventurous, raucous stories about their colorful adventures with the unit and their deployment to Panama and the Philippines. They talked about the endless hours of marching and guard duty in sweltering heat and humidity. And they served and endured proudly.

One of the most poignant anecdotes they shared reflects the social and political realities of a segregated nation at the time. While both brothers enlisted on nearly the same day they were soon to be dissimilarly marked. The way Dad told it, when they shipped out of Puerto Rico for basic training the military did not have a designation for Latino/Hispanic, only colored or white. As it worked out, one brother was designated “colored” while the other was designated “white.” The irony is punctuated by the fact that they resembled each other in a number of ways, nearly identical. 

Dad passed away in the loving hands of the hospice care unit of the Bronx, Veterans Administration Hospital on the Fourth of July, 2013 – knowing dad, he planned it that way.  Dad was a humble man except for two things – his service and his family. 

The Congressional Gold Medal is the highest form of recognition that Congress can bestow on an individual or group for outstanding achievement. Joining the President in the White House were several surviving Borinqueneers, many in their late 80’s and 90’s, and their families but also the Congressional leaders that fought to bestow this high honor to these brave veterans. The Bill, authored by Puerto Rico’s Congressional representative Pedro Pierluisi was shepherded through Congress by a bipartisan effort led by Representative Bill Posey of Florida, a Republican, and Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, a Democrats. Governor Alejandro García Padilla and several members of the legislative leadership were on hand to congratulate the award recipients.

It was a historic, emotional and uplifting day on so many levels. Seeing our Commander in Chief, flanked by several Borinqueneers in their twilight years, in the White House gathered to sign into law a bill honoring these stalwart heroes was remarkable.  They represented the spirit of tens of thousands of their brothers-in-arms, including my dad and “tío Jose” who have fought for over a century on the battlefields so far from home. 

James Albino is the Executive Director of the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico