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He Left as an Ordinary GI, Returns as a Hero

May 23, 1991|GEORGE RAMOS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the year that Army Spec. 4 William Martinez was away from La Verne Avenue, much of Los Angeles' Latino landscape changed.

Gloria Molina, for example, won election to the powerful County Board of Supervisors after a bitter court battle over the dilution of political power for Latinos. La Placita Church, the largest Catholic parish in the Southland, moved away from its activist agenda for Central American refugees under a new pastor.

And Fernando Valenzuela, the southpaw whose pitching successes made him a hero on both sides of the Mexican border, is no longer a Los Angeles Dodger.

But Martinez, a 21-year-old communications specialist with the 82nd Airborne Division, was unprepared for perhaps the biggest change that had occurred on his home front.

Because he was in the Persian Gulf, he became a hero to his friends and neighbors in East Los Angeles.

The honor isn't just limited to him. Four other servicemen from La Verne who were in the Gulf are also being treated as heroes.

Martinez admitted he doesn't comprehend how it happened. Understandably, he was taken aback on April 6 when an estimated 60 relatives, friends and neighbors from La Verne and adjoining Fraser Avenue went to Los Angeles International Airport to welcome him in front of reporters and TV cameras.

"This is just great," sputtered the shocked soldier as he hugged well-wishers. "I can't believe this. Why is this happening?"

On the way home in the car, it was explained to the soldier that La Verne had become a much different place:

* The little-known street became a symbolic focal point in Los Angeles during the Persian Gulf War. From a single block of 60 stucco and wood-frame houses, the street not only sent five men to the Gulf but another three were on standby for possible deployment to the Middle East. Their military involvement was in keeping with the long tradition among U.S. Latinos of serving in this country's armed forces. The discovery of La Verne's contributions to the war brought area residents together with strangers who had never heard of La Verne, including a record promoter who wrote a song imploring U.S. forces to kick Saddam Hussein's "butt."

"Really?" gasped the soldier.

* Some of the men's parents, including Martinez's mother, were regular fixtures on local news coverage on the home-front side of the conflict to get Iraqi troops out of Kuwait. Maria Martinez, who was born in Mexico and speaks only Spanish, was frequently interviewed on English-language television, including Cable News Network.

"Geez, she doesn't even have cable," Martinez noted.

* The street's pride in the five men became a loyalty test of sorts for area residents who had ambivalent feelings about the U.S. involvement in the Middle East. Many residents, such as Neighborhood Watch captain Martha Cooper, eagerly displayed U.S. flags and homemade posters in support of the troops and were quick to offer comfort to the soldiers' families when the war broke out in mid-January. Others, who opposed the Persian Gulf operation, were welcomed to some neighborhood functions, but their presence sometimes caused awkward moments.

"I can understand that," said Martinez.

* The mention of any U.S. casualties during the war sent a tremor through the working-class barrio. Martinez's mother once went through a night of hysterical crying when she learned that 11 Marines were killed at the battle for the Saudi town of Khafji. She was sure that her William had died, despite repeated assurances from neighbors that units from Martinez's 82nd Airborne were not involved in the fighting.

"That's just the way she is," the paratrooper said with a shrug.

The reaction to the home-front support was much the same when the first La Verne soldier arrived from the Gulf. Spec. 4 Adrian Yracheta, also of the 82nd Airborne Division, wondered what all the fuss was about when he came home about two weeks before Martinez's homecoming.

"I don't think of myself as a hero or anything like that," Yracheta said. "I had a job to do and I went and did it."

The three other La Verne men--Navy SEAL member Timothy Reyes and Ramon Sandoval Jr. and Manuel Castro, both Marines--are likely to go through the same shock and disbelief when they come home.

"I just had no idea this was going on," Martinez said of the hoopla on the street.

The soldier quickly warmed to all the adoration on the afternoon of his arrival. Once out of his paratrooper's uniform, he donned a blue beach shirt and shorts for a homecoming party that few in the neighborhood are likely to forget.

With a Linda Ronstadt album of Mexican ranchera songs blaring in the background, the front yard of the home of Steve and Rachel Reyes became the gathering place for upward of 75 people who went to salute the returning veteran.

He was hugged, toasted and kissed by nearly everyone in attendance. They wished him a happy birthday, since he turned 21 while away from home.

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