If the Cold War had turned hot and the U.S. had gone to war with the Soviet Union, Ramon Rodriguez knew his marching orders.
Rodriguez would have parachuted into Russia with a 12-man Special Forces team to train a guerrilla army. Quite a mission for a one-time teenage criminal who enlisted in the Army only to avoid going to prison.
"The drop area is still classified. But we had the names of indigenous people we were going to train as guerrillas," said Rodriguez, a Vietnam War hero with a chest full of medals, including three Silver Stars and five Purple Hearts.
Now 57 and with thin streaks of gray accenting a dark shock of hair, Rodriguez still displays the assuredness that made him one of the Army's youngest command sergeant majors and one of America's top soldiers until he retired in 1983 at age 40.
Becoming one of the nation's elite warriors came easy enough. He loved the physical demands of soldiering. But as a teenager roaming the tough streets of Wilmington, it appeared that prison garb was the only uniform Rodriguez would ever wear.
On Veterans Day, Rodriguez and other former servicemen of Mexican American descent will be honored during a four-hour tribute beginning at 11 a.m. at Santa Ana College. The event will honor the role of Mexican Americans in the nation's wars.
Attorney Rick Aguirre, who helped organize the event, expects about 2,000 people, including Latino veterans from throughout the Southland, Arizona, Colorado and Idaho.
From Hero Street USA in Silvics, Ill., a block-long neighborhood from where 22 Mexican American families sent 84 men off to fight in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, to La Verne Avenue in East L.A., where five Latinos from a single block served in the Persian Gulf War zone, Mexican American veterans will be remembered and honored.
Latinos account for 11.4% of the U.S. population. However, a 1999 study by the Washington-based National Council of La Raza found that 30% of the U.S. infantry troops sent to Bosnia in 1997 were Latino.
In 1997 the Marine Corps honored the nation's 39 Latino Medal of Honor recipients, 13 of whom were Marines. No ethnic group in the United States has been awarded more Medals of Honor per capita, according to a Marine statement at the time.
"Chicanos have always been there, ready to serve when their country needed them. Society didn't always have a place for them, but they always had a place in the military," said Rodriguez, a Carson resident who owns a private security company.
Orange County Superior Court Judge Francisco P. Briseno, a retired Marine colonel and tank company commander in Vietnam, said the sacrifice and contributions of Mexican Americans in wartime are often overlooked.
"Every time you take a close look at how we performed in combat you'll see that it's been exemplary. But this isn't recognized. Even now, in peacetime, we have a lot of very good people in the military who are doing a great job, especially in the combat ranks," said Briseno, who will also be honored Saturday.
The exclusion of Mexican Americans from some quarters of society while being accepted in the military was illustrated by the case of Army Pvt. Felix Longoria. Longoria was killed June 15, 1945, in the Philippines.
When his remains were returned home to Three Rivers, Texas, in 1949, a funeral parlor in town refused to let his family use its chapel because Longoria was Mexican American. The case drew national attention, and the town was widely condemned for its bigotry.
Two Texas congressmen at the time, Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson and Rep. Lloyd Bentsen, arranged for Longoria to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery instead.
Historically, Latinos said they have found assimilation easier in the military, where they are judged on ability rather than background. "In the Army everyone is green," Rodriguez said. The sentiment is shared by Briseno.
"The Marine Corps was my way out," said Briseno, who was raised in a blue-collar family in Gardena. "The Marines gave me the opportunity to finish college and law school. I got sworn into the California Bar in Danang [Vietnam] by my commander. I wouldn't be where I'm at but for my experience in the Marine Corps."
The military also proved to be Rodriguez's salvation. As a teenager, he was arrested on suspicion of grand theft auto and other crimes. After his last arrest, Rodriguez could have been sentenced to the California Youth Authority.
A judge offered him the choice of enlisting in the Army to straighten out his life or doing jail time. Rodriguez, a high school dropout, chose the Army.
On the Lookout for Role Models
Helped along by his combat record (he earned his three Silver Stars in only 32 days), the Army sent him to Columbia College of Missouri, where he received a business degree. He also served as an ROTC instructor at the University of Missouri at Columbia and taught land navigation and reconnaissance at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point.