I am honored to join you in celebrating Hispanic-American heritage. The richness of Hispanic culture—whether it be in food and dress, music and the arts, in science, religion, languages, education, business, government, and the host of other ways we describe the progress and contributions of peoples in this great land of the free and home of the brave.
One of those measures, the one I am asked to address, is Hispanic-American contributions to safeguarding our way of life from the Revolutionary War to today's conflicts—in 10 minutes. Impossible, you say? That's true, but let me begin the dialogue this way—by quoting the timeless words of a 19th century New Mexican soldier—"Soy pobre, y mi única herencia es mi honor." "I am poor and my only inheritance is my honor." Rafael Chacón fought in the American Civil War with the 1st Infantry Regiment of New Mexico Volunteers under the command of Kit Carson. His words alone suggest a cultural richness of its own.
From our earliest days in the American Revolution to today's battles for freedom in Iraq and Afghanistan, Hispanic Americans have "borne the battle," and their contributions are woven into the very fabric of American history. More than one million Americans have given, in President Abraham Lincoln's words, their last full measure of devotion—lives placed on the altar of freedom. Many of those patriots have been Hispanic.
Over one million Hispanic Veterans live in the United States and Puerto Rico—225,000 Hispanic-Americans are serving on active duty, including Medal of Honor recipient Staff Sergeant Leroy Petry, who spoke here earlier today. Sergeant Petry is representative of the many others, who put country before self, duty before comfort, and honor before safety.
One of my predecessors in leadership at VA, Everett Alvarez, was the second-longest held prisoner of war in Vietnam. That is the historical footnote that will always be associated with his name. What that footnote cannot possibly capture is the strength, courage, discipline, and determination it took to survive torture at the hands of a brutal enemy—day-after-day, week-after-week, month-after-month, for eight and a half years, without compromising his honor or surrendering his dignity or his sanity.
It is one thing to resist with a weapon in your hands, it's another to resist with only your head and your heart. From deep within must come unshakable strength and unwavering belief that you will prevail even as brain and body are on the verge of collapse. Where do we find such strength and courage? These are not things we can teach or train people to do. A legacy of honor runs deep in Hispanic culture, and it shows itself at times like this.
The Spanish governor of Louisiana, General Bernardo de Galvez, helped rout the British on more than one occasion and provided crucial assistance to the Continental Army. Galves town—Galveston, Texas—is named in his honor.
The first full admiral in the U.S. Navy was a patriot named David Farragut—a rank that was awarded in 1866, following his brilliant naval victory at Mobile Bay in August 1864. Admiral Farragut's father, Jorge, came to this country from the Spanish island of Minorca to help American patriots win the wars of the American Revolution and of 1812.
In World Wars I and II, Hispanic Americans served with distinction, even while they faced discrimination. From surviving the brutality of the Bataan Death March to soaring victories in both the European and Pacific theaters of operations, Hispanic Americans were part of every crucial operation during World War II. Thirteen Medals of Honor, our country's highest award for valor, were awarded to Hispanic Americans.
Heroism in battle was a common virtue in Korea, as well. In February 1951, after bitter winter fighting, Puerto Rican soldiers of the 65th Infantry Regiment were pulled out of combat and moved to the rear for a short respite from the brutal fighting along the front lines.
Unbeknownst to everyone, 1,000 North Korean soldiers had infiltrated the front lines deep into friendly territory. When the alarm was raised, the 65th immediately rallied to attack and destroy the infiltrators, in the process saving the Commanding General and the headquarters of the 3rd Infantry Division. Eight soldiers of the 65th Regiment were awarded Distinguished Service Crosses, second only to the Medal of Honor for gallantry in action, and 129 soldiers were awarded Silver Stars. Of their war fighting prowess, General Macarthur said, "they are writing a brilliant record .In battle, and I am proud to have them in this command. I wish ….we might have many more like them."
In Vietnam, Master Sergeant—then-Staff Sergeant—Roy Benavidez, First Special Forces Group, was awarded the Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry on 2 May 1968. Hearing that three attempts to extract a beleaguered 12-man Special Forces team from being overrun had failed, Benavidez voluntarily boarded an aircraft which was trying to make one more extraction attempt.
He directed the pilot to a clearing, jumped from the helicopter, and ran 75 meters through withering fire to the team, incurring three wounds to his leg, face, and head. Despite his injuries, he assumed command of the team, marked its position with smoke, directed friendly fire against an encircling enemy, and evacuated half of the wounded to the pick-up point. As enemy fire intensified, he ran back to the team's assembly point to recover the body of the dead team leader and the classified documents he carried, and was again severely wounded by small-arms fire in the abdomen and by grenade fragments in his back.
When the hovering helicopter was destroyed, killing the pilot, Master Sergeant Benavidez pulled the survivors into a tight defensive perimeter and directed close air support to protect the team. Wounded a sixth time, he still managed to engage and kill at least three of the enemy, while ferrying his fellow soldiers to yet another extraction aircraft.
With little strength remaining, he returned to the perimeter one last time to secure all classified material and bring out the remaining wounded. Only then did he board the extraction aircraft to fly to safety.
Years later, Master Sergeant Roy Benavidez would say: "…There is no greater calling [than] to serve in the military of a free nation. . . . Because imbedded deep within the soul of every free man or woman is the knowledge that every freedom we have, was earned for us by our ancestors, who paid some price for that freedom."
"Soy pobre, y mi única herencia es mi honor." And that inheritance is the part of Hispanic American culture that had made us rich beyond expectation. Thank you.