The contributions that Hispanic Americans have made to the U.S. military were celebrated with Latin flair on Thursday at Fort Benning.
About 65 people showed up to celebrate the theme “Embracing, Enriching and Enabling America” for Hispanic Heritage Month, which began Sept. 15. The ceremony was held in the atrium of Martin Army Community Hospital.
Master Sgt. Luis Perez, operations sergeant major for the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, presented the keynote address, highlighting the sacrifices that Hispanic Americans have made on behalf of their country.
“In total, 61 Hispanic-Americans have been awarded the Medal of Honor since the American Civil War,” he said. “Forty-six of these men served in the U.S. Army, 13 of these men served in the U.S. Marine Corps, and two served in the U.S. Navy, respectively.
“Out of these 61 recipients, 15 of these men were born outside of the United States mainland, as eight of these men were born in Puerto Rico, five were born in Mexico and one each from Span and Chile, respectively.”
Natasha Ruiz-Freeman, a hospital volunteer, danced to Latin music while images of a Caribbean island served as a backdrop on two computer monitors. Some in the audience clapped along as she sashayed to the beat.
Military personnel also showed a video featuring famous Hispanic Americans who made significant contributions to the nation. The list included Dolores Huerta, an American labor leader and civil rights activist who co-founded the National Farm Workers Association, which later became the United Farm Workers; Luis W. Alvarez, an American experimental physicist who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1968 for work that included the discovery of many resonance particles; and David Bennes Barkley, the son of a Mexican American immigrant, who received a medal of honor for his heroic actions during World War I in France.
Hispanic Heritage Month was first observed as Hispanic Heritage week in 1968 and was expanded to a month under President Ronald Reagan in 1988, according to a news release from Fort Benning. Each year, the commemoration begins on Sept. 15, which is the anniversary of independence for Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. The date also coincides with the anniversary of Mexico’s independence on Sept. 16 and Chile’s independence on Sept. 18, according to the release.
Perez, who hails from Puerto Rico, said thousands of Mexican-Americans volunteered to fight for the Union Army in the Civil War. He mentioned the service of Corporal Joseph DeCastro, who became the first Hispanic American soldier presented with a medal of honor. He was recognized for attacking a Confederate flag-bearer during (Maj. Gen. George) Pickett’s Charge in the Battle of Gettysburg, seizing the opposing flag, and presenting it to Union General Alexander Web.
“This past April, Puerto Rican soldiers who fought with the 65th Infantry Regiment - famously known as the ‘Borinqueneers’ - were presented the Congressional Gold Medal in ceremonies on Capitol Hill and in San Juan Puerto, Rico,” Perez said. “The unit was named the Borinqueneers after the original pre-Spanish word for Puerto Rico, ‘Borinquen.’
“The Borinqueneers were the first Hispanic unit, and the sole unit from the Korean War to receive the Congressional Gold Medal. The regiment is also credited with the last battalion-sized bayonet assault in Army history.”
Perez said that tradition of valor and selfless sacrifice continues today, telling the story of Master Sgt. Leroy Petry who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his service with the 75th Ranger Regiment during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. As weapons squad leader, Petry set out to clear the courtyard of a house that contained high-value combatants, Perez said. While crossing the courtyard, he and another Ranger were wounded by automatic weapons fired by enemy fighters.
“From the American Revolution through Iraq and Afghanistan, Hispanic Americans have fought bravely for our nation,” he said. “But their contribution to our Armed Forces goes beyond their time in service. America’s diversity has always been one of our greatest strengths, as people of different backgrounds and cultures share their unique experiences and perspective to benefit all.”