A Chance to Tell Their Stories

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 4, 2007

Amid the ceviche and the salsa, the politicking and the edgy stand-up comedy routines -- the usual ingredients of the burst of Latino pride that is the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute convention -- there were quieter, stop-and-think moments woven through this year's festivities.

One came at last night's black-tie gala -- 2,500 politicos, activists, entrepreneurs and glam people on flashy dates filling the Washington Convention Center ballroom -- when Alfred Rascon gave a bear hug to Rodolfo Hernandez. Two heroes, two wars, two versions of a gold star-and-eagle medal, stamped with the word "Valor," hanging around their necks. That's the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest.

Rascon, an Army medic in Vietnam, tenderly patted Hernandez's bald head, where a metal plate has raised a small dome, an old repair for the damage done one spring day in Korea.

"Get a haircut, Rudy," Rascon said, in that simple gesture of touching the old wound, acknowledging the sacrifice, then putting it to rest.

Hernandez just smiled. War stories. Can laugh about them now.

This year the institute, the nonprofit arm of the caucus, staged its annual three days of fundraising, partying and policy seminars in honor of Latino veterans. Everywhere you went, from the "Reyes [Kings] of Comedy" night at the Warner Theatre Tuesday to the presidential forum with four Democratic candidates yesterday morning, a few dozen veterans were there, wearing their caps. Some walked a little stiffly, some looked ready to ship to Iraq. Ghosts in their eyes.

How can Ricardo Palacios Jr., 85, a member of an Army company from El Paso -- a unit of kids who attended grammar school and Bowie High School together, and then watched each other die at Monte Cassino, Italy, in 1944 -- tell you, really tell you, about Simon Jimenez, the friend who threw himself on the barbed wire so his buddies could scramble over his body-bridge, and who then got shot? He can't. He shakes his head, grips his cane. "I saw so many deaths," he said in Spanish.

"They needed to be recognized," said Rep. Solomon Ortiz (D-Tex.), a member of the caucus and a veteran. "Sometimes we take it for granted -- the sun is shining, the coffee is made -- and we forget the sacrifices they made."

Latinos have received 42 of the 2,373 Medals of Honor awarded in this nation's history. Rascon, 62, and Hernandez, 76, were singled out at the gala, a fundraiser for the institute's youth development programs. Receiving awards for community service were Rep. Lu¿s Gutierrez (D-Ill.), who has pushed immigration reform in the House, and Monica Lozano, publisher of La Opini¿n, the widely read Spanish-language newspaper based in Los Angeles.

Latino vets have been in the news via their omission and belated insertion in Ken Burns's PBS documentary "The War." But there's an irony here, and Rascon put his finger on it:

"Nobody realized I was Hispanic," he said. He immigrated from Mexico as an infant. "When somebody is shooting at you, there's no discussion of color. It's just the fact you're dead or alive."

In combat, of all places, it was possible to find that utopia of colorblind unity, which, if it ever broke out over America, might shrink Hispanic Heritage Month down to St. Patrick's Day-size.

Rascon, who retired from the Army as a lieutenant colonel, then rose to the top of the Selective Service System, earned his Medal of Honor during a jungle firefight in March 1966. He raced forward to treat wounded comrades, shielding them with his own body from grenades and bullets, which hit him instead.

"It wasn't a question of heroism," he said. "It was a question of taking care of my friends."

Hernandez, who left the service after Korea and worked for the Department of Veterans Affairs as a benefits specialist, fought against an attack of superior numbers in May 1951, while his comrades began a withdrawal for lack of ammo. Wounded by a grenade, he kept firing until his rifle jammed, then charged with only a fixed bayonet, killing a half-dozen more until he dropped unconscious from shrapnel to his head and a bayonet to his face and his back.

"I would have killed more of the enemy, but my blood started to tell me I couldn't do it no more," he said. "At that moment I felt that no harm would ever come to me. There was something inside of me that was hard to explain. It was another man [fighting]. It wasn't me."

At the comedy night, several members of the fabled Borinqueneers -- the 65th Infantry Regiment from Puerto Rico, which served in World War II and Korea -- sat in a row at the back. At first they reacted with what appeared to be baffled silence at the in-your-face ethnic humor of the new generation of Latino comics, introduced by older-school-edgy Cheech Marin. But soon they were laughing almost as hard as the rest of the several hundred people in the audience.

It was a night for saying things you can only say among your own people. Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Tex.), another veteran, cracked that Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) "just said he hadn't seen this many Mexicans since the last time he was in Wal-Mart."

Comic Kiki Melendez warned that "Lou Dobbs is outside waiting to deport us!"

Alex Reymundo said in rapid-fire Spanish that yes, he does speak Spanish. Then he mock-thundered in English: "For those of you that don't, you're in America, time to learn the language!"

Carlos Mencia turned the language question around and satirized Latinos such as his brother, who, even after 35 years in the States, can't quite manage English. His brother recently announced with pride that he was a citizen of "the Shu-nighted States."

Yesterday morning, the veterans listened to Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel say how they would respond to Latino issues. Afterward, Vietnam veteran Ricardo Palacios III, son of Ricardo Jr., offered this review of the pols: "A lot of promises."

Last night the veterans were in the spotlight again, trying to live up to an image and a people, a task that must not be as hard as combat. While legendary salsero Willie Col¿n and his band closed out the evening, the vets listened while a younger generation danced.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company