Long battle to win recognition for the Borinqueneers reached far beyond DC
The bill to grant the honor, the highest Congress can bestow on an individual or group for outstanding and enduring achievement, was pushed over considerable hurdles up Capitol Hill and on to the White House by Resident Commissioner Pierluisi, Florida Rep Bill Posey and Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal.
But the effort to win the medal for the Borinqueneers extended far beyond Washington, D.C., stretching past the Beltway, across the United States and even reaching the highest diplomatic circles in Korea, where the fighting men of the 65th Infantry paid a high price for their reputation for bravery and competence in the face of adversity.
Central to that effort was the somewhat unlikely team of Frank Medina, a West Point graduate and former Army captain who served in the Iraq War, and Raúl Reyes Castañeira, a 65th Infantry Regiment veteran of the Korean War whose three brothers and father were also members of the storied unit.
Medina’s late grandfather had been a member of 65th Infantry, so the young West Point alum was aware of their service and sacrifice against the odds, which included racial discrimination that kept them off the front lines and in support roles through two World Wars until they finally got a chance to fight in Korea.
“The nation was at a cultural juncture,” Medina told CARIBBEAN BUSINESS online in an exclusive interview. “The 65th Infantry rose above adversity. They exceeded expectations.”
Medina, a Florida-based engineer, jumpstarted the drive to get the Congressional Gold Medal for the Borinqueneers in 2012 after attending an activity for minority graduates of the U.S. armed forces academies during which recognition was paid to the Montford Point Marines and Tuskegee Airmen, trailblazing African-American units that had been awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. It was there the Medina first met Reyes Castañeira.
“Reyes Castañeira asked me how we could get one of those medals for the 65th Infantry,” Medina said. “And the rest is history.”
What followed was a multi-front campaign to drum up support for the Borinqueneers that included a blitz of cold calling, the launch of a website and a flood of letters to officials and lawmakers including Pierluisi and the four stateside Puerto Rican members of Congress: Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.), Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.) Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) and Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.).
Pierluisi, a national Democrat and head of the island’s statehood New Progressive Party, was the first to get the ball rolling on Capitol Hill with legislation filed in 2013. Posey, a Florida Republican, quickly got on board, adding bipartisan weight to the bill.
Medina’s next task was helping find a sponsor in the Senate, with Democrat Blumenthal finally picking up the banner through the Hispanic-Americans Veterans of Connecticut in Hartford.
South Korea’s ambassador to Washington, Ho-Young Ahn, sent a letter to Capitol Hill supporting the awarding of the Congressional Gold Medal to the Borinqueneers.
“The men of the 65th Infantry were part of the generation of Americans that answered the call to defend a little known country and people,” he wrote.
Both chambers finally approved the legislation last month and Obama is scheduled to sign it during a ceremony at the White House next Tuesday.
Medina, who spent years on the campaign, is quick to point out that people across racial and geographic lines pitched in to make the honor possible.
“This was a cumulative effort around the nation,” he said.
While the grunt work was being done on the ground in far-flung corners of the country, it was Reyes Castañeira who served as the “inspirational spirit” within the movement, according to Medina, who refers to the aging Borinqueneer as his adopted grandfather.
The San Juan-born Reyes Castañeira grew up as the self-described “Army brat” son of a father who was a career soldier in the 65th Infantry. He and his three older brothers — Carlos, Robert and William — followed their father into the ranks of the Borinqueneers.
While his older siblings served in World War II and were sent to the front lines in Korea, Reyes Castañeira would have to wait his turn as Army brass kept him out of combat to keep the family name alive in the event that his brothers didn’t make it home alive.
“He was like the ‘Saving Private Ryan’ of the 65th Infantry,” Medina said.
When the older brothers emerged from Korea unscathed, Reyes Castañeira was pressed into duty, taking his place at the Borinqueneers vanguard from 1951-52. He served with the unit for three years, rising to the rank of sergeant.
“My brothers were always in heavy fighting until they rotated safely back to Puerto Rico,”Reyes Castañeira said. “I served for several months in the front lines doing combat patrols and defending the line against the enemy who were constantly firing on us with artillery, mortars, and machine gun fire. We held the line.”
The Borinqueneers were created by Congress in 1898 as an all-Puerto Rican segregated unit, and is credited with the final battalion-sized bayonet assault in U.S. Army history. Called upon to serve in support roles in World War I and World War II, the unit proved itself a potent fighting force in the Korean War.
According to Medina, it was during military maneuvers on Vieques that the Pentagon brass took notice of the Borinqueneers and realized that they could be an asset on the front lines.
During Korea, the Borinqueneers were awarded 10 Distinguished Service Crosses, 256 Silver Stars, 606 Bronze Stars, and 2,771 Purple Hearts. Deaths in Korea among the Borinqueneers numbered 750 men. Of these, over 100 are still listed as missing in action.
As a unit, they earned a Presidential Unit Citation, a Meritorious Unit Commendation and two Republic of Korea Unit Citations, including personal praise from Gen. Douglas MacArthur when they were called to the front lines of the Korean War.
“The Puerto Ricans forming the ranks of the gallant 65th Infantry give daily proof on the battlefields of Korea of their courage, determination and resolute will to victory, their invincible loyalty to the United States and their fervent devotion to those immutable principles of human relations which the Americans of the continent and of Puerto Rico have in common,” MacArthur said of the Borinqueneers. “They are writing a brilliant record of heroism in battle and I am indeed proud to have them under my command. I wish that we could count on many more like them.”
Although primarily composed of Puerto Ricans hailing from Puerto Rico and mainland U.S., during the Korean War the 65th Infantry had minor elements of segregated African-Americans, Virgin Islanders, Filipinos and Mexican-Americans as part of a regimental combat team.
When Obama signs the bill, the Borinqueneers will join baseball legend and humanitarian Roberto Clemente, also from Puerto Rico, as the only Hispanics ever to be awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, which is the highest award Congress can bestow on an individual or group for outstanding and enduring achievement. Clemente received the honor posthumously in 1973 after he was killed in airplane crash while delivering food and other supplies to earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua.
“I will die in peace knowing that the 65th Infantry got the recognition it deserves,” Reyes Castañeira told CARIBBEAN BUSINESS online.
George Washington was awarded the first Congressional Gold Medal in 1776 —238 years ago — and the medal has since been awarded fewer than 160 times. The 65thInfantry Regiment will be one of only about 10 military units ever to have received this honor. That short list includes veterans who served in segregated military units, including the Native American Navajo Code Talkers, the African-American Tuskeegee Airmen, the Japanese-American Nisei and the African-American Montford Point Marines.
After a Congressional Gold Medal bill has been approved by both houses of Congress and signed into law by the president, officials of the United States Mint 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 and comment 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. Once the secretary of the Treasury has made a selection, the design is sculptured and the medal is struck at the Philadelphia Mint. The mint then notifies the White House and arrangements are made for a formal presentation by the president, typically held at the U.S. Capitol.
The push for recognition for the Borinqueneers was somewhat of a race against time to ensure that at least some of its members who served so valiantly in Korea would live to see themselves honored.
“We did our duty with honor and pride. We honor our comrades who died in that far away land to keep that country free. I hope the Puerto Rican people and the United States never forgets our sacrifice and the blood we shed there,” Reyes Castañeira said. “All my brothers are deceased. I dedicated the rest of my life to them, so that nobody forgets them.”
In March, 24 mostly ethnic or minority U.S. soldiers — including four Puerto Ricans — who performed bravely under fire in three of the nation’s wars finally received the Medal of Honor that the government concluded should have been awarded a long time ago.
The servicemen — Hispanics, Jews and African-Americans — were identified following a congressionally mandated review to ensure that eligible recipients of the country’s highest recognition for valor were not bypassed due to prejudice. Only three of the 24 were alive for Obama to drape the medals and ribbons around their necks at the White House ceremony.
Reyes Castañeira intends to be there at the Capitol when the 65th Infantry finally gets its due, standing tall for the many of his former comrades who have passed away in recent years.
“This has been a long fight and I am very proud,” Reyes Castañeira said. “This isn’t just an honor for the 65th Infantry. This is an honor for all of Puerto Rico.”