Memorial Day is the day we remember and honor the men and women of the United States Armed Forces who gave their lives for our country. Originally, the holiday was created to remember the fallen soldiers of the Civil War, on both the Union and Confederate sides. Today, Memorial Day is one of those holidays that seems to serve us in different ways, to remember our fallen soldiers, to mark the beginning of summer, and for businesses to go bonkers, with sales on everything from cars to toasters.
But I think this Memorial Day is a good one to especially honor and remember Hispanics who have given their lives serving this great nation. Just a month ago we were all witness to the horrible bombing at the finish line of the Boston marathon. And most of us saw the image of Carlos Arredondo, who helped save Jeff Bauman, the runner whose legs were blown off by the bomb. When I read the reports, I learned that Arredondo is a Costa Rican immigrant whose son was killed while serving in Iraq in 2004.
More than 20,000 Latinos served in Operation Desert Storm and Desert Shield. According to the Department of Defense, 41 Medals of Honor (the nation’s highest military honor) have been awarded to Latinos.
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The first Latino to receive the Medal of Honor was U.S. Army Private David Bennes Barkley, who fought during WWI. Pvt. Barkley was born in Laredo, TX to an Anglo father and a Mexican-American mother. When he enlisted, he used his father’s name so he would not be assigned to a non-combat unit, as was the norm for non-Whites. It wasn’t until 1989 that his Hispanic heritage was discovered. In a ceremony celebrating Hispanic Heritage Week in 1989, he was recognized as the first Hispanic to receive the Medal of Honor. His citation states: “Private Berkley volunteered to swim across the Meuse River in France under heavy enemy fire in order to locate the exact position of the enemy. He did this, but as he swam back to relay the information to his commanders, he suffered cramps and drowned.”
In 2002 the David B. Barkley Plaza in Laredo was built and named for Private Barkley. The memorial honors the 41 Hispanic soldiers who have received the Medal of Honor.
Hispanics have fought for the U.S. since the time of the American Revolution. Both George Farragut, a native of Minorca, Spain, and father of Admiral David Farragut, and Spanish soldiers like Bernardo de Galvez, who was Governor of Louisiana at the time of the war, helped the U.S. win its independence from Britain.
Many Hispanics fought during the Civil War, on both sides. Hispanics have fought in every major conflict the U.S. has engaged in. According to the Department of Defense, anywhere from 250,000 to 500,000 Hispanics served in WWII, and Hispanics were awarded 12 of the 431 Medals of Honor awarded during that conflict. About 80,000 Hispanics served in the Vietnam War and 13 of them were awarded Medals of Honor.
Indeed, this Memorial Day, it is important to honor Hispanic soldiers who have given their lives for our country. Immigration debate aside, the armed forces and the nation owe a debt to all immigrants, Hispanic or otherwise, who have fought for and preserved liberty in their adopted homeland.