Published January 17, 2013
In April of 1951, Modesto Cartagena and the rest of the U.S. Army’s 65th Infantry Regiment were part of military’s effort in the infamous Uijonbu Corridor near Yonch'on, North Korea when two enemy emplacements opened fire on Hill 206.
"With no regard for his own safety," as the official record states, Cartagena single-handedly left his position, charged directly in enemy fire and took out the two Chinese emplacements. An enemy grenade knocked him to the ground, but Cartagena rose to his feet and continued fighting.
Categena’s actions in the Korean War are just one of the heroic actions taken by the Army’s 65th Infantry Regiment, mostly Puerto Rican soldiers known as the Borinqueneers, in the wars of the last century, said Frank Medina, the president of the Boriqueeneers Congressional Gold Medal Alliance.
Medina and a number of Borinqueneer veterans from World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the recent conflicts in the Middle East now want the recognition that other former segregated military units, such as the Tuskegee Airmen and the Navajo Code Talkers, have been granted.
“We want to highlight the courageous actions they took,” Medina said. “It’s comparable to any other U.S. soldier.”
While many veterans of the 65th Infantry are highly decorated – Cartegena counts a Silver Star, Purple Heart and distinguished service cross among his awards – the Congressional Gold Medal would be awarded to all veterans of the regiment, Medina said.
“The Congressional Gold Medal will be the highest award granted by Congress to a segregated Hispanic unit,” he added.
Members of the Borinqueneers alliance have started a campaign, both on the island and in the mainland U.S., to spur Congress to award the medal to the Puerto Rican veterans and raise awareness for the adversity the soldiers faced on the battle field and upon return to civilian life.
“They served their country and then they got back to Puerto Rico to find that they don’t have the same status as other soldiers,” said Javier Morales, the president of the 65th Infantry Veterans Association.
A 65th Infantry veteran, whose brother was wounded in Vietnam by a claymore mine, Morales now spends his time traveling around his home island, visiting with other veterans and hearing their concerns.
Besides the lack of any formal recognition from Congress, Morales said, many veterans have not been given the proper care and benefits that other soldiers received when retiring from active duty.
“Some don’t have benefits. They were wounded, they’re suffering from PTSD and they need help,” he said. “The treatment we received when we got back was horrible.”
Started only last year, the effort to get awarded the Congressional Gold Medal is still in its very nascent stages, Medina said, but added that they have received support from other military groups such as the National Veterans Association and the Japanese-American Nisei Soldiers.
They group is trying to gain the support of at least one congressman to introduce a proposal to grant the Borinqueneers the medal.
In Medina’s home state of Florida, he has petitioned senators Bill Nelson, a Democrat, and Marco Rubio, a Republican. Neither has indicated whether they would support the effort.
Neither Rubio nor Nelson would return phone calls seeking comment.
“It’s a matter of persistence,” Medina said. “We’re looking for a catalytic event that will spur our movement on.”
While the 65th infantry has a street named after the regiment in the South Bronx and has received praise from former Puerto Rican Gov. Pedro Rosselló and Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the Congressional Gold Medal would be the official recognition that many of the Borinqueneers have wanted for decades, Morales said.
“They were the units that were always sent to the front lines,” Morales said. “They need to be recognized.”