American GI Forum Salutes Hispanic Veterans
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Oct. 21, 1997 A U.S. congressman, two generals, an artist, an infantry regiment and a squadron of Mexican combat pilots were recently extolled here by the American GI Forum.
Ceremonies during the GI Forum's second annual Salute to Hispanic Veterans were held at the Organization of American States headquarters. This year's honorees are Rep. Esteban E. Torres of California, Army National Guard Lt. Gen. Edward D. Baca, Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Clifford Stanley and internationally renowned artist Jesse Trevino. Also honored was the El Escuadron 201, a Mexican World War II fighter squadron and the all-Puerto Rican 65th Infantry Regiment.
"Our grassroots organization of over 170,000 members has been the voice for Hispanic veterans and their families in medical benefits, employment, education, economic development, housing and political issues," said Jake Alarid, national commander of the American GI Forum. "For Hispanics, serving our country is a duty, and doing our duty by doing our best is expected."
The forum hopes to counter stereotypical perceptions of Hispanics "by recognizing and calling attention to outstanding individuals who have excelled in their selected field of work and who have brought honor to the Hispanic community," Alarid said.
Retired Mexican air force Col. Carlos Garduno accepted a plaque recognizing the contributions of more than 300 Mexican airmen who fought with the Allies during World War II.
The 201st Squadron, known as the Aztec Eagles, was the only Mexican flying unit to operate on foreign soil. It entered the war after German U-boats sank two Mexican oil tankers bound for American ports on the Atlantic coast in May 1942.
Garduno said in May 1945, he was among the first of 31 P-47 pilots to fly with the U.S. 58th Fighter Group, Fifth U.S. Air Force, in the Philippines. From June 25 through July, the 201st flew 92 combat missions, including long-range strike missions over Formosa.
The Mexican squadron comprised more than 50 pilots and 250 ground crewmen. Two pilots earned the U.S. military Legion of Merit. All the pilots received the U.S. Air Medal. Group crew members and the pilots received the Philippine Liberation Ribbon, Philippine Presidential Unit Citation and the U.S. World War II Victory Medal. The "Aztec Eagles" also received the Mexican medal of valor.
The forum conferred its National Founders Award on Army National Guard Lt. Gen. Edward D. Baca.
"Lt. Gen. Baca's military career has extended from volunteering to serve in the Vietnam conflict to the New Mexico National Guard to the top as chief of the National Guard Bureau," Alarid said. "He exemplifies the finest of men and women in uniform. The fact that he's Hispanic is a tremendous source of pride to the entire Hispanic community."
Baca said the American GI Forum has done more for Hispanic veterans than any other organization in American history.
"I'm honored to be honored with the Puerto Rican 65th Infantry Regiment because if they could award a Medal of Honor to an entire unit, they would have awarded it to the 65th," Baca said. "As a Mexican, I have special ties to the El Escuadron 201 because that squadron from Mexico makes us all proud. I'm proud to be a Hispanic, and I'm proud of my Mexican culture.
"In honoring me tonight you're really paying tribute to thousands of National Guardsmen, many of them Hispanics," Baca said. "Many of them laid their lives on the line for these United States of America -- our country."
Representative Torres received the American GI Forum's National Founders Award for lifetime achievements that exemplify integrity, excellence, honor, respect and dignity, Alarid said.
"A high school dropout, he was encouraged by a teacher to return and graduate," Alarid said. "He served in the Army during the Korean War and, [after his discharge,] worked his way from the auto assembly lines to a leadership position in the United Auto Workers Union.
"He was assistant to President Jimmy Carter for Hispanic affairs and a special ambassador to the United Nations," Alarid noted.
Elected to Congress in 1983, Torres has served as chairman of the Hispanic Congressional Caucus, is a member of the appropriations committee and is deputy Democratic whip in the House.
The forum's Commander's Award went to Jesse Trevino, a disabled Vietnam veteran.
"His studies at the Art Student League in New York City were interrupted when he was drafted into the Army and sent to Vietnam," said Alma R. Esparza, the forum's national chairwoman. "He was severely wounded by sniper fire in the Mekong Delta and lost his right hand -- his painting hand. But that didn't stop him."
After more than two years of recovery and replacement of his right hand with a metal hook, Trevino studied art at San Antonio College, learning to paint with his left hand. He earned a bachelor of arts degree from Our Lady of the Lake University and a masters in studio art at the University of Texas, Esparza added.
"His paintings and murals can be found in the collections of the San Antonio Museum of Art, Prince Charles of England, San Antonio Library, Anheuser-Busch, J.C. Penney's and Dr. Pepper and National Museum of American Art of the Smithsonian," Esparza said.
Edison Reyes, a recipient of the Bronze Star Medal for valor and the Purple Heart, accepted a plaque honoring the 65th Infantry Regiment, the only all-Hispanic U.S. unit during the Korean War. Reyes also served in Vietnam and later retired as a master sergeant.
The 65th participated in nine major campaigns, earning the U.S. Presidential Unit Citation and the Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation. Individually, members received eight Distinguished Service Crosses, 134 Silver Stars, 562 Bronze Stars and 1,014 Purple Hearts.
Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Clifford Stanley received a plaque in recognition of his efforts to strengthen relations with the Hispanic community and in building diversity in the Marine Corps. Stanley is chief of public affairs for the Marine Corps.