At least, 375,000 Puerto Ricans are veterans or are still wearing the uniform of the different branches of the United States military. Puerto Ricans are the only Latino group over-represented in the military and are twice as likely as the rest of the population to serve in the military. Let’s reflect on their service and what they mean for Puerto Rico.
The Post-Maria Challenges Faced by Puerto Rican Veterans
This year, Veterans Day comes a little less than two months after the devastation left behind by Hurricane Maria. Tens of thousands of Puerto Rican veterans are among those affected by the storm. The island-based veteran population has been deeply affected by Maria because it is an aging community in need of medical care (the bulk of it belongs to the Korean War and Vietnam War eras). The invisible wounds inflicted by their war experience compounds Maria’s effect on this population.
Miguel Oliveros, a 75-year-old combat veteran, told CNN reporters that Hurricane Maria was worse than the combat he had faced in Vietnam. He, along with many others of this vulnerable population, have been struggling since the storm.
USA Today reported that many veterans are living in shelters, while WUNC produced a story on the mental health effects of the storm, including the PTSD triggered by the sound of helicopters and the green-turned-brown landscape reminiscence of the damage caused by napalm and the chemical defoliant known as Agent Orange, among other things.
The Department of Veterans Affairs has attempted to meet the needs of these Puerto Rican veterans, according to a report by WNYC. There are eight outpatient clinics operating throughout the island, as well as numerous initiatives aimed at helping veterans. The VA has also conducted medical evacuations since Maria.
The Role of the Military in Relief Efforts
Since late September, the military has also been involved in almost every facet of the recovery efforts. That has included, among other responsibilities, managing the distribution of food, water, and fuel to the island’s 78 municipalities. By mid-October, the Pentagon reported that over 13,000 military personnel were participating in the recovery efforts. The US Navy hospital ship Comfort was also sent to the island. Some Puerto Rico National Guard units have been deployed and on the road since Irma grazed the island scarcely two weeks before Maria.
Even the older generation has done its part. A group of Borinqueneers, the celebrated all-Puerto Rican unit recently awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, was stranded in New York after a trip to South Korea where they were honored by the government for their service during the Korean War. While waiting eagerly for the opportunity to fly back home they purchased supplies to bring back to the island.
There are also stories of veteran military personnel self-deploying from the mainland in order to assist with the relief efforts and utilize their expertise. And, during the communications blackout following Maria, Puerto Ricans in active military service from as far as Colorado Springs, (the headquarters of Northern Command- tasked with providing FEMA with logistical support and personnel) took the initiative of joining Zello channels dedicated to Puerto Rico and Maria and kept listeners informed of whatever news came through military channels.
The efforts of young and older veterans and service members to aid their communities in times of distress should not surprise anyone. After all, these men and women have a tradition of becoming pillars of their communities, their form of “paying it back”.
Honoring The Military Service of Puerto Ricans
It was just last year that the 65th Regiment, better known as the Borinqueneers, received the Congressional Gold Medal. This past September, Centro launched the first issue of the Centro eJournal, “The Puerto Rican Experience in the U.S. Military: A Century of Unheralded Service.” The project was led by historian Dr. Harry Franqui-Rivera, with assistance from Senior Digital Aide, Monique Aviles.
The staff at the Puerto Rico National Cemetery has also been working tirelessly to repair the damages to the grounds caused by the hurricane. Roughly 60,000 veterans are buried there.
However, the effort to aid and support the Puerto Rican veteran community needs to go beyond honoring the living and the dead. Puerto Rican veterans and service members have been leaving the island at alarming rates since the Debt Crisis crippled the island’s economy. From 2003 to 2015, Puerto Rico lost 52,000 veterans. During that period, the island-based veteran population went from 142,00 to 90,000. If the economy’s situation in Puerto Rico does not improve Puerto Rico will continue losing its veterans.
Let’s make sure that the Puerto Rican veterans may return home if they choose so. There is no better way of honoring their services and sacrifices. And Puerto Rico needs them back.
Hero image by Staff Sgt. Daniel Martinez
*The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.