(Editor’s Note: In July, CTLatinoNews.com, MassLatinoNews.com and RILatinoNews.com launched a campaign to assist the 65th Gold Medal Alliance with their national efforts to have the legendary Boriqueneers, the segregated military unit from Puerto Rico, awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. As part of our effort, we have dedicated a special section on the Borinqueneers where we will keep our readers up to date on their lobbying efforts, what you can do to help them and features on the many people involved.)
As a boy growing up in Puerto Rico in the 1950s, Gumersindo Gomez admired men in uniform. His father was in the National Guard and his godfather served in the Korean War.
“He looked so sharp in his uniform, so proud to be serving the United States ,” said Gomez, 65, a Springfield, Mass., resident. “From then on, I wanted to be like them.”
Years later while living in New York , his brother already in Vietnam , Gomez enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1966. He served for a year in Vietnam and in many places in the world theatre thereafter.
Gomez retired from military service in 1986 after 20 years in the Army, and is executive director of the Bilingual Veterans Outreach Centers of Massachusetts Inc., which he helped found in 1987. With locations in Springfield and Boston, the centers are open to veterans of all wars, conflicts, peace-time service and all eras, helping with basic needs.
As director of the organization, Gomez received an email in 1994 from Ernest Acosta. Acosta was in his 80s and wrote about his time in Korea as a member of the U.S. Army’s 65th Infantry Regiment. Known as the Borinqueneers, these infantrymen were from Puerto Rico and fought for America in three wars – World War I, World War II and the Korean War.
Yet none of them had ever received the distinguished Congressional Gold Medal.Acosta asked Gomez for his help in gaining recognition for the Borinqueneers. Gomez met Acosta in Washington, and they mobilized their efforts to get the word out.
The more he learned about the Borinqueneers and the discrimination they were subjected to as a segregated military unit, the more determined he became.
He also realized that his late godfather was a Borinqueneer, giving him more impetus.
“Puerto Ricans spilled their blood in the battlefields and defended this nation and flag,” Gomez said. “I’ve talked with many Borinqueneers and despite the language barrier and discrimination they endured, the men are as proud today as they were back then. That’s why I became involved.”
Two recognition ceremonies took place in 1998, he said. The 65th Infantry Regiment was honored at Arlington National Cemetery , where a sugar maple was planted. Later that year in a ceremony conducted by the Gov. Pedro Juan Rosselló González M.D., of Puerto Rico , a fava tree – known to be strong, Gomez said – was planted in Puerto Rico as a symbol of the Borinqueneers’ strength, and a plaque was unveiled.
Last year, Gomez was one of the first people contacted by U.S. Army Capt. Res. Frank Medina, an Iraq War veteran who is national chairman of the Borinqueneers Congressional Gold Medal Alliance, formed in December with the goal of securing the medal for the Borinqueneers. Gomez is a steering committee member for the alliance.
The coalition mobilized, contacting legislators to have bills introduced in Congress, That was accomplished this spring when HR 1726 was introduced in the House and S 1174 was introduced in the Senate.
Both pieces of legislation are necessary, and a minimum number of co-sponsors are needed for the bills to pass – 290 in the House and 67 in the Senate.
“We’ve had success in Massachusetts with Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Representatives Richard Neal and James McGovern,” Gomez said.
He credited Larry Bystran, of Springfield, founder/CEO of Latino Alliance, for being instrumental in getting Massachusetts politicians involved.
Gomez recently traveled to Jacksonville , Fla. , for the national convention of the Vietnam Veterans of America. He and Medina spoke there, requesting that the VVA pass a national resolution of support for the Borinqueneers Congressional Gold Medal. That goal was accomplished, and Gomez was one of the people Medina thanked for making it happen.
The BCGM Alliance is making strides nationwide. The bill, H.R. 1726, currently has 84 of the required 290 co-sponsors and U.S. Senate bill, S. 1174, introduced in June by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., has 15 of the necessary 67 co-sponsors.
Alliance members are hoping they get the necessary number of sponsors before the end of the legislative session so they won’t have to start all over again, and they appeal to all Americans to contact their legislators.
There’s another reason to step things up, however.
“We hope it happens as soon as possible because the Borinqueneers are dying quickly,” Gomez said. “We just lost one from Springfield , Arcadio Torres. He was 87 and was buried with full national honors and the medals he earned.”
Unfortunately, those did not include the Congressional Gold Medal.
“I will stay with this effort as long as I can,” Gomez said. “These veterans are in my heart.”
Americans wishing to help the alliance may write or email their two U.S. senators and their U.S. House of Representatives member and ask for their support. For a sample letter and more information, visit http://www.65thcgm.org/