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Remembering Latino military service
Photo courtesy: American GI Forum /Mile High Chapter

By James Mejía

This Memorial Day, Latino veterans ask the community to recognize the strong tradition of patriotism and service from the Latino community. From the World Wars through current service, Latino participation has been over-represented and underappreciated.

Service in Vietnam

Ernie Torres entered military service when his draft notice came up. He enlisted to try to get a better job assignment and because he scored high in mechanical ability in aptitude tests, he worked in helicopter maintenance. Torres eventually became a helicopter gunner for “what we called a slick, a supply helicopter.” He flew for several months in the Vietnam War “mostly resupplying troops, taking troops out to the field, and medivacing the injured or dead.” He didn’t feel much ethnic discrimination himself but witnessed frequent and bitter fights between black and white soldiers. African Americans were assigned the worst assignments.

It wasn’t until many years after the Vietnam War that a troubling image came back to haunt Torres. The vet was watching, Letters from Iwo Jima, a movie about World War II from the Japanese perspective, and thinking about his new granddaughter. It occurred to him that the Japanese soldiers were just like them, sometimes just regular people, victims of circumstance. It reminded Torres of an incident during the war when an unauthorized soldier tried to get on the helicopter headed back to base instead of staying on the front lines. So desperate was the soldier that he pointed his M-16 at Torres who didn’t let him on the chopper. Instead of opening fire with the helicopter machine gun, Torres signaled that the soldier should lower his weapon, which he did.

The face-off could have easily ended more tragically with neither man leaving the situation alive. The desperate soldier eventually got his helicopter ride to base where he was met by waiting Military Police. Ernie Torres lived to see his grand-kids.

This Memorial Day, Torres will march in Commerce City’s parade. The parade is “better attended and goes through neighborhoods with people out in front yards, and a lot of Mexicanos out there. There we feel more accepted and appreciated.”

Art Gallegos also served in Vietnam where he found his time “90 percent boring and 10 percent terror.” Gallegos made squad leader, building rapport with his fellow soldiers, “When you are in a foxhole you rely on each other.” He also remembers the harsh environment he faced upon his return to the states, “Coming back was not the same, we fight their goddamn war and when we came back they spit on you.” Gallegos recalls “horrendous discrimination against the blacks” but also discrimination against veterans from wars fought in Asia. “The VFW wouldn’t take in Vietnam or Korea vets because they weren’t official wars.”

Gallegos wants people to know, “I am an American first. I am proud of those stars and those stripes. I’m an American veteran.” Gallegos will march with the 82 Airborne Division Association in the Commerce City parade.

Patriot Writes About Others

Gallegos and Torres are two of the Latino veterans featured in a new book by Denverite Jose Aguayo, Color of Duty: Stories of Latinos in the American Military. A project that first started as a grant from the Latino Community Foundation, a part of the Denver-based Rose Foundation, Aguayo interviewed Latino veterans from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and other parts of the Middle East. The soldiers served in all branches of the military.

Aguayo hopes that through his writing, “Latinos who are rarely mentioned in the history books will receive the recognition and gratitude they are due.” Aguayo finds the story particularly relevant today, “With the President and other political leaders denigrating Latinos without having served a day, and calling themselves patriots, it’s important to demonstrate the strong history of Latino military service.”

Aguayo knows about true patriotism. Though he dreamed of life as a military officer, he enlisted because, “In 1959 there was no way a Latino kid from a small town could get a commission.” Once the Sedgwick, Colorado native was in the service, he trained in southern states during a time of “heavy segregation.” Like other Latinos in the military at that time, Aguayo found himself “in no man’s land.” Not allowed to enter ‘Colored Only’ doors nor welcome inside white dominant institutions.

Aguayo found it ironic that 25 years later when he was sent to Georgia for a conference on behalf of his employer, the Coors Brewing Company, Atlanta was completely transformed into a city with “plenty of Mexican restaurants and a sizable African American community.”

A Veteran Continues to Serve

Joe Davalos never got on a ship even though he worked for the Navy. Instead, he stayed grounded, “working in maintenance control,” to ensure “as many planes as possible were flyable each day.”

Davalos also went to the south for the first time in his life, “it was another time and another place” where “whites were too busy discriminating against blacks to worry about us.”

After his time in the service, Davalos continued to serve. He was involved with National Image to help Latinos secure federal jobs and then the GI Forum. He, like GI Forum founder Hector Garcia wants to ensure, “Latino vets are getting the services they are entitled to.” He “gravitated to getting more involved, running for office and eventually being elected as Vice Commander and then Commander (his current position).”

Colorado Memorial Day Events

A Veteran’s Memorial Day Tribute will be held in Denver on Saturday, May 27th, from 10 a.m.-12 p.m. at the Pillar of Fire Hall in Downtown Denver. The event will honor Colorado veterans featuring storytelling and music.

The city of Aurora will host the 4th Annual Colorado Freedom Memorial Anniversary Ceremony on Saturday the 27th at 11 a.m. at the Colorado Freedom Memorial. After the ceremony, a free concert will take place at 2 p.m.

On Monday, May 29th, Commerce City will host the 53rd edition of ‘The state’s largest Memorial Day parade’. At 9:30 a.m. at Veteran’s Memorial Park, a ceremony will take place to honor this year’s grand marshals and the parade starts at 10 a.m.

Elmwood Cemetery plays host to the Brighton Memorial Day Remembrance on Monday the 29th starting at 1 p.m. Grand Lake holds their annual Memorial Day Parade on the 29th at 10 a.m.

In Colorado Springs on May 30th at 9.30 a.m., the 10th Cavalry Buffalo soldiers will help celebrate Memorial Day at the Spanish American War memorial.





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