Brian Woodman, Jr. CTLatinoNews.com
Frank Medina, grew up in Bridgeport, CT and still remembers when he first learned about the legendary ‘Borinqueneers.’ It was from his grandfather, who served in the 65th Infantry Regiment. Medina remembered the story of the valiant unit, which fought in some of the fiercest battles in WWI, II and the Korean War despite the discrimination they faced in the very military in which they served.
The young Medina, who now lives in Orlando, Florida, went on to graduate from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 2002, served in the Iraqi war,and years later, by chance, met another member of the 65th Infantry Regiment, Raul Reyes. It was then Medina decided it was time to take action.
The infantry regiment was disbanded in 1959, but their service and sacrifice was never properly acknowledged, Medina said. He was especially struck by the tremendous pride his grandfather, Reyes and other members of the 65th regiment felt in serving in the military despite the challenges they faced. During their service, they faced discrimination and setbacks, language barriers between the soldiers and their commanding officers were problematic and at times the unit lacked the proper equipment during the cold Korean winter, and other necessities like ammunition.
Inspired by the story of this determined regiment, which was the largest, longest-standing, and only active-duty segregated Latino military unit in U.S. history, began contacting veteran’s service agencies across the country to try to identify and locate living members of the Borinqueneers. He found, there is an estimated 300 members still living throughout both the continental United States and in Puerto Rico. Many of the living members of the 65th Infantry Regiment are in their late 80s and early 90s.
With other veterans, Puerto Ricans, other Latinos and non-Latinos, they formed the Congressional Gold Medal Alliance, the non-profit, non-partisan and all volunteer group whose only ‘mission,’ as they called it, was to gain support in congress so the soldiers, who until recent years had almost been forgotten, would be duly noted in this country’s history by being awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, which had already been awarded to the the Tuskegee airmen and the Navajoe Code Talkers. The effort encouraged individuals and organizations to reach out to members of Congress, especially Senators, to request their co-sponsorship of the bills and votes to pass the legislation. The alliance was determined, one volunteer said, to, “NOT allow the legendary Borinqueneers to become a fading footnote in American history and in the history of Latino-Americans and Puerto Ricans in the U.S.
Finally, after a long journey with countless hours of calls, meetings, and events, the national grassroots effort to get this award for the Borinqueneers had come to an end. The bill that officially recognizes the contributions of the 65th Infantry Regiment – by awarding the unit congress’s highest honor – makes its way to the President’s desk on Tuesday to be signed. The bill seemed to pick up steam this year and both houses voted on it this past month.
“It is very magnificent news and it is a landmark achievement. It surprised everybody,” said Frank Medina, the National Chair for the Borinqueneers Congressional Gold Medal Alliance.
Former Borinqueneers recognize the importance of the honor not only for themselves, but for all those who served before and after them, as well. “I receive this medal on behalf of my comrades, the members of the 65th Infantry Regiment who never returned, on behalf of my comrades who died on the battlefield,” said Edison Reyes, a veteran of the 65th infantry.
Medina is pleased that there are still living members of the 65th Infantry Regiment around to receive the award. “It is important that these veterans receive the recognition they deserve while they are still able to be present and enjoy it,” said Medina, who adds there is still work to be done for the Borinqueneers Congressional Gold Medal Alliance. “We still have to design and fabricate the Gold Medal,” he said.
The effort, Medina says, does not stop there. After the group receives their medal, Medina hopes there is more that the Borinqueneers can accomplish. “We have to weave our way into American culture and help Hispanic veterans get the proper recognition they deserve. Our group needs to get rid of the negative media attention for Hispanics and make it positive,” said Medina. He hopes this national recognition will also help highlight the service and sacrifice of all Latino-American veterans.
Over the years, there have been other efforts to give the Borinqueneers their due recognition, some date back to at least 1994. At that time, Gumersindo Gomez, a veteran of the Borinqueneers, along with Maryland librarian Ernest Acosta, started working to gain attention for the 65th Infantry Regiment. Documentaries have been produced and in 2000, Gomez and six Borinqueneers veterans joined 300 Puerto Rican veterans and their families at a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington D.C. During the ceremony, a plaque was unveiled honoring the Borinqueneers and a tree was also planted in the group’s honor. In New Britain, CT, the country’s first memorial park to the Borinqueneers is in the planning stages. An award winning documentary produced years ago and narrated by actor, Hector Elizondo described the unit’s toughest fight as not on the battlefield.
Medina has found the Borinqueneers so inspiring that he has one more goal in mind for the group. “The fact that they faced lots of discrimination and prejudice, but were still able to get through it and perform exceptionally well is incredible. They deserve to have a Hollywood movie made about them,” said Medina.