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CRISIS IN YUGOSLAVIA

East L.A. Veterans, Neighbors of Captured Soldier Mobilize

Reaction: Flags sprout on Sgt. Ramirez's street. Legion, VFW posts buzz.

April 02, 1999|GEORGE RAMOS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

American Legion Post 804 in East Los Angeles became a center of activity and prayers Thursday when word spread that a local boy from Eastmont Avenue, Army Staff Sgt. Andrew Ramirez, was one of three GIs captured by Serbian forces in the Balkans.

By early morning, Dolores Sanchez, whose husband is a former commander of the post, had collected two packages of yellow ribbons from a member of the group Mothers of East L.A.

By 10:30 a.m., she had attached the ribbons to three dozen miniature American flags, gotten into her van and gone to Eastmont Avenue, where a crowd of onlookers, neighbors and reporters had gathered in front of the home of the soldier's father.

There, Sanchez passed out flags and posted many of them on the fence around the home.

"It's the least we can do for our soldiers," Sanchez said matter-of-factly. "We have to support our soldiers."

By the time she got back to the American Legion building, a modest stucco structure on East Cesar E. Chavez Avenue, Persian Gulf War veteran Daniel Ortiz was busy working the telephone. Ortiz, the commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars post that shares the building with Post 804, was talking to anyone he could reach--among others, officials with the VFW, local veterans organization officials and the Hispanic American Airborne Assn.

"We've got to be there for [Ramirez's] family if they need help," Ortiz said.

It's always that way at the post when a military crisis threatens.

The vets there know that Chicanos and other Latinos can be counted on in any military action involving U.S. troops. None of them was surprised that a Mexican American--and a local man at that--was in the news as a result of the Kosovo crisis.

"I'm not surprised that Mexicanos are out there on the front lines," Vietnam vet Gabriel Lopez said. "My heart sank when I heard what happened. It really shouldn't have happened, but that's what we're there for."

Then, without much prompting, Lopez peered out silently at the darkening weather, looking as if he were reciting a prayer silently to himself.

"We just have to hope that it all turns out OK."

The pride that these vets feel about having served in the military was evident inside the American Legion post, where the members, mostly Chicano, spend a lot of time talking about the red, white and blue.

The post is named for another Eastside resident, Eugene A. Obregon, a Marine ammo carrier who received the Medal of Honor for heroism during the Korean War. A portion of one wall is dedicated to him. Also recognized are other Latino Medal of Honor recipients, including Roy Benavides, an Army Special Forces soldier who won the medal for heroism during the Vietnam War. Another wall is covered with photos of local members in uniform.

In between the frantic phone calls and the acquisition of even more miniature U.S. flags, more than one of the vets reminded a visitor that Latinos have won more Medals of Honor, 38, than any other ethnic minority in the United States.

A slogan on one wall, painted underneath an American flag, typified the attitudes of these vets:

"These colors don't run. In peace, as in war, we serve."

Local lawmakers have been pushing for more recognition of what Latino veterans have done in the U.S. military.

For example, state Sen. Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles) is pushing for a public service announcement asking taxpayers to set aside a donation, as part of their state income tax return, to pay for upgrading a Mexican American veterans memorial in Sacramento.

Ortiz, an academic consultant at the East Los Angeles Community Union, knows firsthand how the Eastside has rallied to support its soldiers. He was one of the five soldiers from the same street in East L.A., La Verne Avenue, who served in the Gulf War. The spotlight on the street, which prompted complete strangers to visit the working-class neighborhood, kept up his spirits while serving in the 24th Infantry Division.

"It meant a lot to me to know that we had support here," he said.

So that, in part, prompted his continual working of the telephones.

Vietnam vet Bob Archuleta, a member of the Los Angeles County Veterans Advisory Commission, stopped by Post 804.

"We have to support our troops because it's now gotten personal. They have one of our boys."

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