Honor for Puerto Rico veterans is important step in fight for equality

President Barack Obama on June 10 signed into law a bill to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the United States Army’s 65th Infantry Regiment.  The Regiment was composed largely of soldiers from the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, and members of the unit are called “Borinqueneers.” 

The regiment is acclaimed for its outstanding combat performance during the Korean War.  Like American society more generally, the U.S. military in the early 1950s was different than it is today, and attitudes toward racial and ethnic minorities could be harsh.  The men of the regiment not only had to fight the enemy on the battlefield, which they did with courage and skill, but they also had to overcome negative stereotypes held by some of their own commanders and comrades.

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A Gold Medal is the highest form of recognition that Congress can bestow on an individual or group for outstanding achievement.  Gold Medal bills are intended to be difficult to enact into law.  To even be considered for a vote, the legislation must first be sponsored by two-thirds of the members of both the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate.  The congressional effort to award the Gold Medal to the Borinqueneers was bipartisan, led by Rep. Bill Posey of Florida, a Republican, and Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and myself, both Democrats.  An array of individuals and organizations raised public awareness about the regiment’s contribution to the fabric of American life, communicated with elected officials, and urged support for the legislation.  These determined advocates, along with the Borinqueneers they sought to honor, are the true heroes here.

When the President signed the bill into law in a White House ceremony, he was flanked by several Borinqueneers in the twilight of their lives.  They were joined in spirit by tens of thousands of their brothers-in-arms who fought as part of the 65th, particularly those who fell on the battlefield, so far from home, so many years ago.  The regiment takes its place alongside baseball star and humanitarian Roberto Clemente—also from Puerto Rico—as the only Hispanics ever to receive a Congressional Gold Medal.  It was a day filled with gratitude, joy, and—above all—pride.        

The signing ceremony serves a valuable purpose beyond honoring the Borinqueneers.  Specifically, it highlights the fact that, for generations, from World War I almost a century ago to Afghanistan today, U.S. citizens from Puerto Rico have built a rich and distinguished record of military service. If you visit any U.S. military installation, you will see men and women from Puerto Rico, fighting to keep this nation safe, strong and free.  They may speak English with an accent, but they are just as devoted to this country as their counterparts from the states.  If you need proof, there is a frame on my office wall containing photographs of service members from Puerto Rico that have fallen since September 11, 2001—row after row of young faces, sometimes smiling and sometimes stern, usually posing in their dress uniforms against the backdrop of the American flag.

In a book he wrote about Puerto Rico, former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh observed that: “Historically, Puerto Rico has ranked alongside the top five states in terms of per capita military service.”  In the foreword to that book, former President George H.W. Bush noted:  “This patriotic service and sacrifice of Americans from Puerto Rico touched me all the more deeply for the very fact they have served with such devotion even while denied a vote for the president and members of Congress who determine when, where, and how they are asked to defend our freedoms.”

The fight to publicly honor the soldiers of the 65th Infantry Regiment has been won.  The fight to obtain equality, dignity and justice for all U.S. citizens from Puerto Rico continues, but it too will be won.

Pierluisi is Puerto Rico’s representative in the U.S. Congress.