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The Proud History of Hispanics in the U.S. Military

Hispanos en las fuerzas armadas


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June 9, 1944; France. On the outskirts of the small Norman village of Amfreville, a group of American paratroopers, 17th Division, tries to take cover from intense machine-gun fire. For more than four hours German gunners have pinned down the American paratroopers who hoard every shelter they can find from German bullets.

In the midst of the fire, Private Joe Gandara decided to get up from his shelter and firing his Thompson machine gun from the side, decides to draw the German machine guns towards him, to give his partners a chance to advance without being victims of the suppressive fire.

Heroically or miraculously, Gandara alone managed to take the three machine-gun nests that had paralyzed his company. In the brave act, Gandara received a direct hit and a few hours later he died of his wounds.

Hispanics in the Armed forces - El American
Soldiers of the 65th Infantry in Salinas, Puerto Rico. (US Army)

Gandara, a son of two Mexican immigrants who migrated to California in the 1920s, would only receive recognition for his sacrifice 70 years later when President Barack Obama presented his niece (Gandara died too young to have children) with the posthumous Medal of Honor, the highest award a serviceman can receive for his service.

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Like Gandara, millions of Hispanic soldiers have served in the Armed Forces with honor and bravery. However, many do not receive the recognition for their sacrifice that many of their colleagues – with a more Anglo or German surname behind them – do.

Hispanics in the Armed Forces have served with honor and loyalty since the Civil War

Although numerous soldiers of Hispanic descent served in the Armed Forces since the American Civil War, it was after World War II that the word ‘Hispanic’ began to gain notoriety within the American military leadership.

The War Department estimates that between 400,000 and 500,000 Hispanic soldiers served in American troops during World War II, both on the European and Pacific fronts.

General Douglas McArthur referred to the 158th Regiment of the Arizona National Guard – a unit composed primarily of Hispanics – as the “bushmasters,” an allegory for their ability to camouflage themselves in the dense jungles of the Pacific. The general would go on to say that the brave Hispanic unit was “one of the greatest combat teams ever deployed in battle.”

During the Korean War, Hispanics became more actively integrated into the Armed Forces. One regiment in particular, the 65th Infantry, also known as “the Borinqueneers” because of its high composition of soldiers from Puerto Rico, stood out for its bravery in combat.

In Korea, the Borinqueneers not only served with honor, but led the last bayonet charge seen in the U.S. Army on January 31, 1951 outside Seoul. According to Department of Defense records, Boriqueneers that day killed 5,905 Chinese soldiers and captured 2,086 others. Nearly 150,000 Hispanics served in the Korean War, 61,000 of whom were Puerto Rican.

During the Vietnam War, as many as 80,000 Hispanics served in the Armed Forces, participating in such scenarios as the battle for Hue City to the siege of Khe Sanh. For their bravery during their service in Vietnam, more than 22 Hispanics were awarded the Medal of Honor, including Sgt. Roy P. Benavides, who rescued 8 fellow soldiers from North Vietnamese fire while receiving 37 gunshots, grenade, and bayonet wounds.

Seventeen years after the Vietnam War, Hispanics again participated in another war in defense of their nation, the Gulf War. Approximately 22,000 Hispanics served during Operation Desert Storm, representing up to 4.2 percent of the troops serving in that deployment against Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Excluded from the top ranks

During the war on terror, Hispanics not only served the U.S. Army with valor in Iraq and Afghanistan, but over the past 20 years, they have exponentially increased their participation in the Armed Forces.

As of 2019, Hispanics on active duty accounted for 21.39% of servicemen, while Latina women accounted for 17.9% of women.

Although Latinos are the fastest-growing population participating in the military, the Armed Forces lack Latino senior officers.

En las últimas dos décadas los hispanos se han vuelto el grupo demográfico que más ha crecido entre las filas de las fuerzas armas. (EFE)
Over the past two decades, Hispanics have become the fastest-growing demographic group in the armed forces. (EFE)

While the Military generals are almost exclusively white, Hispanics who reach a similar rank make up only 2.1 percent. Among all officers, Hispanics make up just 7.6 percent of the corps.

While it is true that Hispanics are the third most represented demographic in the military, they are still far from reaching decision-making positions within the forces in which they serve. Despite this, thousands of young Hispanic men and women continue to serve their country with honor, loyalty and sacrifice throughout the world.

Economist, writer and liberal. With a focus on finance, the war on drugs, history, and geopolitics // Economista, escritor y liberal. Con enfoque en finanzas, guerra contra las drogas, historia y geopolítica