Monday, December 17, 2007

A Profile in Courage

By: Phillip Arroyo

Over the last 7 years we have all been bombarded by local, national and international press in regards to the war in Iraq, with objective as well as partialized viewpoints in terms of our armed forces’ necessity to continue fighting in a war which in the eyes of many has no ending on the horizon. The conflict in Iraq has undoubtedly divided a nation that was an example of Democracy throughout the world, bringing flashbacks to many Americans of the war in Vietnam during the 1960’s, a war that caused severe divisiveness which resembles many of the events we see today.

Yet, among all the ruckus, media frenzy, arguments and debates, rarely do we have the opportunity to learn of the brave men and women who have fought and continue to fight for our nation abroad, regardless of the relevancy of past and current military conflicts. These are citizens of a nation that do not hesitate to put their lives on the line for all of us in the name of freedom and democracy.

Today we will shed some light on a modern day hero from Puerto Rico named “Al” or “Junior” as he is known among friends, family and loved ones. Al enlisted in the Army at the young age of 17 as soon as he concluded his high school studies, claiming a patriotic vocation to serve his country and the opportunity to see the world as his premier reasons to join. Despite being rejected equal voting and representation rights as an American Citizen of Puerto Rico, due to the island’s current political status with the United States,(citizens of Puerto Rico are disenfranchised from our nation’s electoral process) he proudly served over 26 years in the United States Army Special Operations Command, an elite military division created under President Kennedy's administration. Among the many places of the world in which this highly decorated US soldier was stationed is North Carolina, Seattle, Washington, Georgia, South Carolina, Germany, most of Europe and Vietnam during the war.

We recently had the opportunity to speak with “Al” (now retired) at his Florida home, in order to have an up close and personal interview of his thoughts and views. At the moment of this interview we were helping “Al” put up an American flag pole in front of his Florida home.

1.) As a Puerto Rican, how do you feel after so many years of having served our nation? I feel very proud of the years I dedicated to the US armed forces. Throughout those years, I have made many friends, many of whom fought next to me at Vietnam, many of whom also died bravely in defense of freedom and democracy. As a Puerto Rican and also as an American I am proud to say that I retired knowing that I always gave 110% during my military career and in defense of our great nation.

2.) Did you ever encounter racial hardships during your 26 years in the military? Actually , yes I did. But to be honest throughout my 26 year career, I only faced 2 cases of racial hardships by some of my superiors. Nonetheless, those situations were both immediately solved resulting in them being dishonorably discharged from the Army. To be specific, those situations were triggered by racial slurs against Hispanics. (Laugh) Little did they know that I was an American Citizen just like them even though I was from Puerto Rico. So I never let their ignorance take control of my actions.

3.) How did you feel back in 1969 when you were in the Vietnam War as a US soldier from Puerto Rico? I remember being a little nervous on the flight to Vietnam but as soon as we touched down, I was ok. I knew I had a job to do and I was going to do it no matter what. I was no longer nervous or scared. I felt very good about myself while I was in Vietnam knowing that although there was controversy over the war as now with the war in Iraq, I knew that I was participating in a noble and necessary cause. On many nights alone in the jungle I would think about my family and friends back in Puerto Rico, I would think of my beautiful island of Puerto Rico and home cooking! (Laugh) I did get to see a lot of Vietnam ,a very poor country back then. One of my favorite moments was when I had the chance to attend sick or wounded children for they had no part in the war and yet many times were the most that suffered.

4.) What are your thoughts on the fact that despite having served so many years in the US forces, you still cannot vote for the commander chief, nor have equal political representation if you choose to return to Puerto Rico? I have always thought it was unfair. It hurt to know that I was risking my life for America and yet America would not and still does not return the favor by at least permitting all Puerto Ricans and me the opportunity to participate in the whole Democratic process as well as having equal representation in Congress. That is why I ask from the bottom of my heart to all members of Congress to support HR 900 the Puerto Rico Democracy Act. The time of equality has arrived. It’s time for our great nation to practice what it has preached for years.

5.) What was the Vietnam war like during your tour?

Bloody. Simple as that. The Vietnam war was one of the bloodiest wars in history. Many of my friends arrived at Vietnam with me, and never returned. Among those were many fellow Puerto Ricans . I think that was one of the hardest moments to endure during my tour in Vietnam, having a friend die in front of you and keep going. When I returned from the war I would suffer from bad dreams and would wake up sweating in my bed . As a matter of fact I still have those dreams , although not as often as before.

6.) How did your parents feel when you chose to become a US soldier? My mother was against it and my father did not mind. My father was a Police Officer in Puerto Rico and my mother sewed at a factory. They were obviously sad upon hearing of my decision, but immediately supported me. My father particularly supported me due to his political activism in Puerto Rico, he was a member of the Republican Statehood Party in Puerto Rico (now the New Progressive Party) and he believed that I was doing the right thing in defending our nation.

7.) How did Puerto Rican soldiers perform in the military during your 26 years of service? To be honest and impartial, I must tell you that at least during my years of service, Puerto Rican soldiers were among the sharpest, well dressed, clean cut and effective soldiers. As soon as I applied to the Special Ops I gave 100 percent and was immediately inserted after passing the vigorous training into confidential military missions and operatives.

8.) What were your goals during your career in the military? I always dreamed of reaching the rank of Command Sergeant Major, unfortunately I severely fractured my spinal cord during a routine training and was forced to retire after 26 years of service. Nonetheless, God works in mysterious ways, I had the opportunity to spend more time with my family, especially my sons during their high school years. I never missed a sporting event in which they participated. (laugh) I don’t think I would have been able to do that if I remained active in the Army.

9.) If you had the opportunity to meet with the President of the United States to discuss Puerto Rico’s political status dilemma, what would you say to him? I would say, “Look Mr. President, look at me, I may not look like it much now, but I was a Special Ops soldier that dedicated and risked his life for you , me, and our entire nation. There is a bit of unfinished business of Democracy in Puerto Rico that must be solved for the good of our nation’s image worldwide. The moment has come for a brave President to step up to the plate and dare to do the right thing and that’s to openly urge Congress to facilitate Puerto Rico with equality”

10.) If you had the opportunity to do it all over again, would you choose to be a US soldier? (While looking at the raised American flag in front of his home) In a heartbeat………. And if I would have been more informed politically regarding the travesty of political inequality in Puerto Rico, I STILL would have served our nation proudly.

- First Sergeant Al Arroyo Ramos was a brave US Army Special Operations Command soldier who fought in Vietnam as well as many classified military Operations. He is also my father…………..

Dad this one is for you…..


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