Oliverio “Ollie” Oramas spent Christmas of 1969 not surrounded by family and friends, but recovering from a shrapnel wound at Long Bihn Post in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. He was awarded with a Purple Heart after his infantry division came under attack by the Viet Cong and he was hit in his leg and back by the flying metal.
Even though his injuries were not as serious as they could have been, Oramas recalls the incident in little detail, almost disengaged. It was a long time ago, I recovered and was sent back to my division, he said, in a way that almost makes it sound like he is recounting someone else’s ordeal instead of his own.
But for many, the sacrifices Hispanic veterans have made for the United States is worthy of much more commendation and reverence. Oramas was just one of 31 veterans recognized and honored last Friday, as the Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission held its 7th annual Hispanic Veterans Tribute for both the fallen and surviving Latinos veterans. For the second year in a row, the ceremony was held at the State Capitol.
Oramas, Specialist in the U.S. Army, was just 19 years old when he was drafted, or as he likes to say, “had a special recommendation from the President”, to serve in Vietnam. He had just graduated from his New Jersey high school and was working full-time.
“It was difficult at the time,” Oramas said, joking that he only weighed about 100 pounds at the time. “For me personally, it was an awakening.”
Growing up in New Jersey, Oramas said he had never met any Mexicans until his time in the army. He became friends with them, discovered their food and slang, and learned about their way of life. “I knew nothing about California or their culture,” he said.
He served for three years, including just over a year in Vietnam between 1969 and 1970, before returning back to civilian life in states. He went back work, attended school and attended Johnson and Whales University. He now has a family and works as a mortgage consultant at Fort Niagara.
His parents came to the United States from Cuba, but Oramas is still proud of his service for the U.S.
“I’m very excited about [the event],” he said. “People forget that although we speak two languages, we are American and we served our country. It doesn’t mean we’re any less American.”
The tribute began seven years ago as the brainchild of former LPRAC Commissioner Sonya Ayala.
“We wanted to recognize them and let the public know about them. They’re not just from Puerto Rico, they’re from across the board. They’re here from all walks and they want to serve our country,” Lucia Goicoechea-Hernández, of LPRAC, said.
The tribute serves to remind the community of all the sacrifices Hispanics have made, some of whom the United States is not even their home country, she said.
“It’s a reminder that we don’t just come here, take and go. We serve our country, too.”
Honorees included two Purple Heart recipients: Oramas and two-time recipient U.S. Marines Lcpl. Jeremy A. Mercado. About 15 honorees and 100 people attended the ceremony, Goicoechea-Hernández said.
But it was a 96-year-old veteran from Puerto Rico’s 65th Infantry who bridged the generational gap between veterans, showing pride in service does not fade with time.
SFC Restituto Oyola Alvarez, who attended last year’s event, returned for a second time and received a standing ovation from the audience for his service. The audience and honorees also sang him “Happy Birthday” in both Spanish and English.
Alvarez, who was born in Arecibo, Puerto Rico on May 17, 1919, enlisted in the U.S. Army in Fort Buchanan, Puerto Rico in 1941. He served in World War II and the Korean War.
During his 14 months of service in Korea, he served in as part of the Borinqueneers, Puerto Rico’s 65th Infantry Regiment, Third Infantry Division.
“He just had the best time,” Goicoechea-Hernández said. “He enjoyed it so much.”
The ceremony took a solemn turn as the tribute recognized Connecticut’s 66 fallen veterans who have lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In an unplanned change to the program, Rep. Edwin Vargas read several names of the fallen soldiers along with other veterans.
Also attending to honor the veterans were Gov. Dannel Malloy and Keynote Speaker Carmen Espinosa.
For the first time, the ceremony included an echo taps performance by the Governor’s Horse Guard’s retired Bugler Fred Miodowski and Jonathan Worley.
“It’s very gut-wrenching to hear their names,” she said. “It just made sense to have other veterans read them.”
(Photos by LPRAC)