Congress Lauds American G.I. Forum Founder Garcia
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas, Sept. 15, 1998 A Mexican refugee who grew to be a doctor, soldier, war hero and presidential confidant was honored recently by Congress and the veterans group he founded more than 50 years ago.
Congress honored Dr. Hector P. Garcia, who died on July 26, 1996, at age 82, by passing a bill in August that made the American G.I. Forum a congressionally chartered veterans organization. Garcia founded the organization in 1948, and today it is the nation's largest Hispanic veterans group. The charter status recognizes the G.I. Forum as a peer of the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and others.
At the group's 50th anniversary celebration and annual convention here in August, prominent speakers touted Garcia's nearly half-century struggle against discrimination and inequities leveled at Hispanic and other minorities. Praise came from Army Secretary Louis Caldera; Togo West, secretary of veterans affairs and former Army secretary; Raul Yzaguirre, president of the National Council of La Raza; Texas state Sen. Carlos Truan; and Rodulfo Figueroa, general director of the Mexican ministry of foreign affairs program for Mexican communities abroad.
Figueroa represented his government, which posthumously awarded Garcia its highest honor, the Aztec Eagle.
Figueroa said Garcia "dedicated his life to advocating education, civil rights, labor rights and human rights of our community by struggling against racism and injustice. His life is an example for younger generations."
Garcia received many other honors during his lifelong fight for veterans' rights and his struggle against discrimination in housing, jobs, education and voting rights.
In 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson made him the first Mexican American to serve on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Johnson also appointed him alternate ambassador to the United Nations to promote better relations with Latin America and Spain. Garcia served Presidents John F. Kennedy and Jimmy Carter as an adviser.
President Ronald Reagan awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor. Pope John Paul II recognized him with the Equestrian Order of Pope Gregory the Great. President Bill Clinton eulogized him as a national hero. The Treasury Department's new $75 Series I U.S. Savings Bond bears Garcia's portrait. The eight Americans depicted on the bonds, which debuted Sept. 1, were chosen for their individual achievements and service and, for the first time, to reflect the nation's racial and ethnic diversity. Garcia is the only Hispanic; other honorees include Gen. George C. Marshall and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Garcia was born in the Mexican village of Llera, Tamaulipas, on Jan. 17, 1914, to a college professor and a schoolteacher. When he was four, his family fled to Mercedes, Texas, in 1918 to escape the Mexican Revolution. He was one of seven children, six of whom became doctors.
A 1940 graduate of the University of Texas Medical School, he joined the Army during World War II and served in North Africa and Italy as an infantryman and combat engineer until Army officials found out he was a doctor. He earned the Bronze Star Medal with six battle stars in Italy.
After the war, he opened a medical practice in Corpus Christi and worked as a contract physician for the Veterans Administration. That's when he discovered his employer was denying proper medical treatment and educational benefits to Mexican-American war veterans. He founded the American G.I. Forum on March 26, 1948, to fight that discrimination.
A disturbing incident in 1949 convinced Garcia the G.I. Forum needed to fight for more than veterans benefits.
Army Pvt. Felix Longoria was killed on June 15, 1945, while on patrol in the Philippines to flush out retreating Japanese. It took nearly four years to identify and return his remains to his family. A funeral director in Three Rivers, Texas, told the family the Anglo community "wouldn't stand for" his remains to lie in the chapel for a wake, but he offered to arrange for Longoria's burial in the segregated "Mexican" cemetery, separated by barbed wire.
Longoria's widow called Garcia for help. Garcia called the funeral home and asked permission to use the chapel. The director told him no Mexican American had ever used the chapel and he wouldn't allow it because it might offend the whites.
Garcia reported the conversation to a Corpus Christi newspaper reporter and sent 17 telegrams to congressmen, senators, a governor and other reporters.
The telegrams stated, "The denial was a direct contradiction of those same principles for which this American soldier made the supreme sacrifice in giving his life for his country, and for the same people who deny him the last funeral rites deserving of any American hero regardless of his origin."
The statement was aired internationally by radio broadcasters Drew Pearson, Westbrook Pegler and Walter Winchell, who said: "The State of Texas, which looms so large on the map, looks so small tonight."
Within 24 hours, the founder of the newly organized American G.I. Forum received a telegram from then Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson that read, in part: "I deeply regret to learn that the prejudice of some individuals extends even beyond this life. I have no authority over civilian funeral homes. Nor does the federal government. However, I have made arrangements to have Felix Longoria buried with full military honors in Arlington (Va.) National Cemetery where the honored dead of our nation's war rest."
Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson and President Truman's personal aide, Maj. Gen. Harry Vaughn, attended Longoria's funeral on Feb. 16, 1949.
The incident propelled the G.I. Forum's civil rights agenda to national attention. With its headquarters in Austin, Texas, the forum has evolved from a veterans' rights group into a civil rights organization with more than 160,000 members in 500 chapters in 24 states and Puerto Rico. Today it serves all Hispanics and promotes greater participation in civic affairs, educational attainment, employment, equality in income and health services.
The forum maintains its founder's motto: "Education is Our Freedom, and Freedom Should be Everybody's Business."
Garcia is survived by his wife, Wanda, and three daughters; two brothers, Dr. C.P. Garcia of San Antonio and Dr. Xico Garcia of Corpus Christi; and three sisters, Dr. Cleotilde Garcia and Dr. Dalia Garcia of Corpus Christi and Emilia Garcia Garz of Matamoros, Mexico. A son, Hector Jr., died in 1962 at age 13.
The students of the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston maintain a Garcia Web site at http://www.sga.utmb.edu/talams/drgarcia/early.htm.