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COMMENTARY : The Legacy of Military--Lessons for Latinos


After 53 jobs and 20 years of trying to make sense of life since his two tours in Vietnam, Bernardo thought it was an inappropriate question.

"Knowing what you know now about combat," I had asked him, "would you approve of a son or daughter volunteering for the U.S. armed services?"

In view of recent events in the Persian Gulf, it seemed to be a good question to ask a veterano who had seen the good and bad during six years in the Army. With the observance of Veterans Day looming, the query had, as reporters like to say, a timely hook to it.

U.S. military service has been a proud tradition for many Mexican-American families, some of whom can trace their soldiering back to the Mexican Revolution of 1910 and before. Pictures of loved ones in uniform are a common sight in living rooms and dens from East Los Angeles to Chicago.

The participation of Mexican-Americans during World War II and Korea was so significant that they received 17 Medals of Honor. In Vietnam, they won about a dozen more, and they accounted for 20% of all casualties from the U.S. Southwest. It also was not surprising to learn recently that a two-block stretch of La Verne Avenue in East L.A. has sent at least four sons to the Persian Gulf.

Bernardo Jordan--a Chicano from Douglas, Ariz., whose two brothers also served in Vietnam--is part of that tradicion . But he would not respond to my question.

"Hey, that's not a fair question," he protested.

I wasn't surprised by Bernardo's reluctance. He's always been a little vague when it came to things he didn't want to discuss. "I was doing the Lord's work" was his way, for example, of describing lengthy, unexplained absences in recent years.

He's been that way since we first met in Vietnam in 1971 at an artillery base in the Central Highlands village of Tra Bong. I was a seasoned first lieutenant, all of 23, who had left a company of combat-weary grunts to take up duties as a fire direction officer at Tra Bong. Bernardo was a sergeant on his second tour who sized up people quickly when he wasn't tending to his job as chief of an 8-inch howitzer artillery gun.

"I never seen no mexicano officer before," he declared when he first saw me. "You sure the gringos saben que tu estas aqui fighting for them?"

I laughed because I hadn't seen a Chicano officer in action either.

The question that Bernardo dodged had been on my mind, especially since coming back from La Verne Avenue. Reporters are taught to be objective observers who record the views and events of news makers and ordinary citizens. Historians on the run are what some reporters like to be called.

But I couldn't shake the thought:

Why do Latinos continue to join the military in droves? And is there anything in the Vietnam experience that might temper the enthusiasm for joining up?

In a recent article for The Times, I reported on the thoughts of the parents on La Verne who had sons in the Middle East. Their pride, I reported, came not only because the tiny street had sent so many to the Persian Gulf but also because their sons thought military service was a good thing to do.

One parent, Rachel Reyes, has hoisted a black Navy SEAL banner on her modest stucco home until mi'jo , who is a member of that elite Navy group, comes home. In late August, she and a friend charged up La Verne to the site of the Whittier Boulevard bar where newsman Ruben Salazar was killed, and she hooted at marchers during the Chicano Moratorium 20th anniversary protest.

She took heated issue with marchers who thought Iraq was "another word for Vietnam."

"We are so proud of him," she said of son Timothy. "I mean proud. . . . You know what I mean?"

Mom and Dad were just as proud that I went overseas despite the prevalent anti-war sentiment that swept the country during the Vietnam conflict.

They never talked about whether the pride would have turned to bitterness if I had come home in a coffin.

But there are some veteranos , survivors of Vietnam, who are bitter. On the question Bernardo passed on, these vets are outspoken and to the point.

"I think, clearly, we didn't learn the lesson," said David Valladolid, a Chicano white-collar state employee who was a rifleman with the 199th Light Infantry Brigade in Vietnam.

The large number of Latinos still volunteering for the military "reflects the fact that young people to a large degree do not know about Vietnam," he said. "I don't see (military service) as a tradition for Chicanos who out of pride serve this country. To a large degree, it is the result of the condition that they find themselves in--incredible lack of skills, the dropout rate (from school) is still high.

"Unfortunately, parents still believe it provides a passage toward manhood."

Valladolid, who grew up in San Diego, frequently networks with another Vietnam vet who also works for the state. David Rodriguez, a refugee from the San Joaquin Valley, now commutes to downtown Los Angeles from Corona.

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