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President Obama to Honor Borinqueneers With Congressional Gold Medal

By Clarisel Gonzalez

The legendary and beloved 65th, fondly known as the Borinqueneers, are a presidential signature away from the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award Congress can bestow, to the U.S. Army 65th Infantry Regiment.

Centro researcher and military historian Harry Franqui-Rivera noted that on Tuesday, June 10, President Obama will sign the bill, which he said recognizes the honorable service of the all-Puerto Rican segregated military unit that fought two battles: war and discrimination.

The medal has been bestowed to other minority veterans who served in segregated units including the Native American Navajo Code Talkers, the African-American Tuskegee Airmen, Japanese-American Nisei and African American Montford Point Marines. Currently, the Borinqueneers is the only segregated military infantry unit to have not been awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, which is long overdue.

“A decade ago no one would have predicted such an occasion nor was the 65th as popular as it is now,” said Franqui-Rivera who is working on a book on the Puerto Rican experience in the U.S. Military, which includes the 65th. “Not only was the 65th virtually forgotten by Puerto Ricans but the contribution of hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans who have served in the armed forces has been largely ignored by the general public…This is quite ironic since Puerto Ricans have been serving in the U.S. military since the first days of the American invasion of the island in 1898.”

Since its inception on May 20, 1899 to its transformation into an integrated outfit in 1953, the 65th always had volunteers filling its ranks. Most Puerto Ricans, he said, regarded the 65th as “our heroic regiment” and they became a Puerto Rican icon during the Korean War. Sadly, he said, little was known about the 65th a few decades after the war, even though in Puerto Rico there were monuments and even a street named in honor of the 65th.

The 65th Infantry distinguished itself during the Korean War when two battalions of a thousand men encountered the Chinese 149th Division of nearly 10,000. Three days of brutal fighting culminated when the Borinqueneers fixed their bayonets and charged against the Chinese division. The Chinese withdrew.

Finally the Borinqueneers are getting the recognition that for too long was forgotten Puerto Rico and the United States. The Senate approved a bill last month to award the Congressional Gold Medal. The House of Representatives also approved a bill, which was introduced by Florida Republican Congressman Bill Pose.

Much credit must go to the Borinqueneers Congressional Gold Medal Alliance, founded by former Army captain and Iraq War veteran Frank Medina, who has spent more than a year raising awareness about the soldiers and their contributions to American history. The Borinqueneers will be the first unit from the Korean War to receive the award.

“The ethnicity and race of former recipients (of the award) is no coincidence,” said Franqui-Rivera. “All of these recipients fought under times of crisis to defend a country that at the time treated them, at best, like second rate citizens and at worst like foreign threats. African-American marines and aviators disproving the myth of racial inferiority and unfitness for military service, Navajo talkers using their native language for communications saving countless of American lives at a time when Navajo kids were being beaten for speaking their own language at school, Nisei solders who volunteered to join the U.S. Army as their own families were being sent to internment camps by the U.S. government—those are the type of people whom this medal recognizes. And that is the kind of contribution that the Borinqueneers made. They were willing to pay the ultimate price at a time when Puerto Ricans were openly called ‘a problem’ in academic works and the American press.”

It has taken a lot of movement at the grassroots level to finally bring community awareness and public pressure on the significance of recognizing the Puerto Rican regiment.

Franqui-Rivera remembered he was inspired to learn more about the 65th after reading a newspaper article in 1999 in which Noemi Figueroa Soulet was featured on her efforts to gain support for a documentary on the 65th, The Borinqueneers, which is now considered a first rate film on battle history. With her documentary, Figueroa Soulet also fueled other individuals and groups to rescue the regiment’s history.

In solidarity with the movement to recognize the Puerto Rican regiment with the Congressional Medal, this year’s National Puerto Rican Day Parade is helping to generate public awareness and support to recognize the Borinqueneers’ service.

Just last year, as part of Centro’s 40th anniversary celebration and 100 Puerto Ricans Preserving Our History campaign, the 65th Infantry Honor Task Force, represented by its chair, Anthony Melé, donated its organizational records to Centro. Melé said it is up to us as a community to tell the stories of the unsung heroes who have served this country.

In the Bronx, the stretch of Southern Boulevard from Bruckner Boulevard to Fordham Road was co-named in honored of the 65th Infantry in 2012.

Now, all that is needed is Obama's signature to award the medal to the Borinqueneers. Franqui-Rivera said this is not only recognition for Puerto Ricans and Latinos who have served but for all Americans who have served in the U.S. military.