The plight of the Puerto Rican veterans

On Aug. 4, our nation commemorated the 100-year anniversary of the ‘Great War’, the first global armed conflict in history. The event also market the first time that Puerto Ricans fought alongside the men of every State in the Union.

It’s a sad testament that a century later, the American citizens who live in the United States’ territory of Puerto Rico and participate in its armed forces are treated with the same inequality as in 1914.

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Despite having a population of more than 200,000 veterans, our island only possess one veteran hospital, which is desperately in need of a major renovation; despite the urgent necessity of another medical facility, Congress have not approved funds to build it.

This means that on average, a Puerto Rican veteran has to travel around 25 miles to visit the hospital. This is almost twice the distance of a veteran on the continent.

The medical benefits allocated to our veterans on the island are also lacking when compared to that of the States. For example, the number of clinics allowed to our heroes is less than that of a veteran residing in Florida or South Carolina.

The Veteran Administration needs to upgrade the supporting services it provide in Puerto Rico to the men and women who return from active combat, which again is inferior to that of the other 50 states.

The discrimination against our veterans was on display to the whole nation in late 2012 when then Secretary of the Veterans Affairs Administration, Eric K. Shinseki, abruptly and without any explanation, changed the  venue of the 2013 National Veterans Wheelchair Games which was originally awarded to the city of San Juan, our capital.

This was an unexpected action not only because Puerto Rico had already invested heavily in the festivity, but because the Games’ Organizing Committee Director, Mr. Dave Tosternrude, touted the 1999 edition, which our island hosted; as one of the best in history.

That year 555 veterans from all the States and territories, the third highest total of competitors in the games’ 32 year history, traveled to Puerto Rico.

In his explicatory letter, dated Dec. 18, 2012, the games’ director stated that there were new regulations and guidelines in the Department of Veterans Affairs which prohibited the use of federal funds for traveling and logistic activities outside the Continental U.S.

Just a few days later, Mr. Tosternrude proceeded to announce Tampa, Florida as the host city for the event.

This was cowardly act of geographical discrimination against our veterans. We denounced it then and deplored it even more forcefully today.

Even the famous 65th Infantry Regiment, a distinguished unit of the U.S. Army that served in the Korean War and was mostly composed by Puerto Rican soldiers, hence their nickname, the “Borinqueneers”; waited more than a half of century to get their due recognition.

Since 1917, Puerto Ricans have proudly served in our Nation’s armed forces. Around 700,000 of our soldiers have participated, with distinction, in all U.S. theaters of war, including both the First and Second World Wars; Korea, Vietnam, Kuwait, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq.

But despite their enormous sacrifice, our island still lacks the infrastructure to take care of an ever-growing population of veterans. This by itself is immoral.

Veterans around the nation would continue to be discriminated as long as Puerto Ricans veterans continue to be treated as second class citizens.

After a century of battle, blood and sweat, it’s time to end the plight of our heroes.

Aponte-Hernandez is a former speaker and current member of the Puerto Rico House of Representatives.

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