Retired Army Sgt. Carlos Solla Alvarez can´t remember how many of the Borinqueneer veterans from World War II, Korea and Vietnam are still alive, but he knows that the bravery of the Puerto Rican soldiers he fought with helped pave the way to a safer country.
“I´m proud of having participated in the Korean War, it was my duty as an American citizen to defend the nation,” he said in Spanish, as he explained he is proud Congress decided to honor the 65th Infantry Regiment, one he was part of in 1951 during the Korean War.
The Borinqueneers are expected to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, and take their place in American history, as the honor is considered the highest award Congress can bestow on an individual or group for outstanding and enduring achievement. The 65th Infantry Regiment will be one of only about 10 military units ever to have received this honor.
A legendary Borinqueneer veteran himself, Solla Alvarez 83, now a father and grandfather living in Orlando, recalls with great clarity how his regimen strategically took Uijonbu Corridor near Yonch'on, North Korea and faced “one of the worst artillery battles he ever knew.”
“It was a furious battle, one with many deaths,” he said, “but we all knew it was a very important mission since it was strategic place for the United States and the future of our families back home.”
The legendary Borinqueneers, los Borinqueños, were the largest and longest-standing, segregated and desegregated Latino-American military unit in U.S. history. But they were often mistreated by other soldiers and some didn’t receive the same health or retirement benefits others did when they returned from battle.
As a retired sergeant, Solla Alvarez recalls how many times during battles they communicated in Spanish among soldiers and with Puerto Rican colonels at command.
“Our mission was to get the Koreans out of the caves, that´s why many used bayonets, and we strived to win the enemy over. No one was thinking if were Puerto Ricans or not…We just thought that we needed to defend the United States and avoid as many deaths as possible,” he said.
Many in the regiment have said they faced discrimination by other soldiers because of their ethnicity.
Frank Medina, National Chair of the Borinqueneers Congressional Gold Medal Alliance and a grandchild of a Borinqueneer, said the parallelism of the heroic thinking of the Latino soldier yesterday and now is timeless.
Comparing the situation of the DREAMers and their attempt to join the Armed Forces and gain U.S. citizenship, Medina said: “Our nation should embrace the DREAMers and anyone who wants to be part of the Armed Forces, just like the Borinqueneers. They (Borinqueneers) surpassed and went beyond all the negative expectations people had of them."
Medina recalled the 65th Infantry Regiment Borinqueneers was known by the derogatory name “Rum and Coca Cola Regimen.”
Now that a Congressional Gold Medal bill has been approved by both houses of Congress, the Borinqueneers await for it to be signed into law by President Barack Obama.
Medina explained that the whole process to reach the ceremony may take a year and a half. In the meantime, officials of the United States Mint are expected to meet with the sponsors of the legislation and representatives of the honorees to discuss possible designs for the medal.
Engravers from the U.S. Mint then prepare a series of sketches of alternative designs for consideration by the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts and subsequently by the Secretary of the Treasury, who makes the final decision on the medal’s design.
For retired Sgt. Solla Alvarez, who said he can´t complaint about the pension and other benefits he receives as a retired veteran, the medal is a symbol of acceptance and recognition.
He said if invited he would gladly attend the medal ceremony with his wife in Washington, D.C. – but for now he cannot afford the trip.
Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi called Thursday an “extraordinary day.”
“I am overjoyed that the Borinqueneers—the pride of Puerto Rico and of Puerto Ricans everywhere—will receive this profound expression of national gratitude in recognition of their courage, skill and patriotism,” he said. “The fact that it took many years to arrive at this moment does not diminish the sweetness of the moment itself.”