NCA cemetery director commemorates legacy of Hispanic-American Medal of Honor recipients


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NCA cemeteries enshrine the legacy of all Americans, but for National Hispanic Heritage Month, we have another guest writer.

Please allow me to introduce Greta Hamilton, assistant director at Riverside National Cemetery. Greta has a unique perspective on Veterans Legacy. She shares that with us, while giving us some important history about Hispanic-American veterans. Many Hispanic-American veterans have only recently been fully recognized for their valor. Greta will tell us about the process the brought recognition to so many veterans. And, she will share what it means to the community at Riverside National Cemetery.

All the best,

Bryce


[Greta’s words]

National Cemetery Administration (NCA) cemetery directors have one of the best jobs in VA. We get to experience and witness significant events from a front row seat, on a daily basis. Some of the events receive a large amount of media attention and others go barely noticed by the public, but are no less important. A few months ago I attended my first Killed in Action (KIA) burial. Riverside has the dubious distinction of interring the most service members killed in action within NCA. I prayed this would be our last.

I read the casualty report and remember being moved by the deeds of this young Army staff sergeant. He put his troops’ lives before his own and made the ultimate sacrifice. As I stood with the family at the grave site, I was privy to anecdotes about an amazing son, brother, uncle, nephew and leader. He lived as he had died, putting others before himself. I was honored to have been given such insight into the life of this solider. He became more than the name on burial records. I considered myself lucky to witness this poignant event that had become far too often a part of the Riverside National Cemetery historical narrative.

I love History, especially military history. I remember taking a History class some years ago, and the professor challenging us to take a different approach to historical events. He advised us to “look at who is missing from the historical narrative: ask yourself why they are missing; you will be amazed at where it leads and what it reveals.” On March 18, 2014, I was reminded of this advice when President Barack Obama awarded 24 military members our nation’s highest military honor: The Medal of Honor. These 24 service members were the perfect example of how my professor was teaching us how to view the world and conduct historical research. The event aptly illustrated how leaving a group out of the historical narrative changes the dynamic and presents a skewed picture of events.

During WWII, the Korean War and Vietnam War, a group of deserving servicemen were overlooked for the Medal of Honor. With the support of special interest groups, Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act of 2002. This legislation directed a review of Jewish-American and Hispanic-American veterans’ war records from these three war periods to find soldiers whose acts of valor warranted the Medal of Honor, but may have been passed over because of their race or ethnicity.

The review uncovered 24 soldiers who previously were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second highest Military honor. I remember, as the director of Marion National Cemetery, scouring the list of the new Medal of Honor recipients hoping that my cemetery would have one. We never got that honor. None were buried at our cemetery. Most of the cemeteries impacted by this were further west. As we enter into our celebration of National Hispanic Heritage Month for 2016, and as I am now assigned to Riverside National Cemetery, I was curious if any of these individuals had ties to Riverside. Six of the twenty-four service members had ties to Southern California. Although none of the 24 was interred at Riverside National Cemetery, I discovered a special connection between the tiny community of Casa Blanca, Riverside National Cemetery, and the American Battle Monument Commission.

portrait of SSgt. Lara

Staff Sgt. Salvatore Lara

The community of Casa Blanca, slightly over 1 square mile, is a formerly unincorporated neighborhood of Riverside. The city was actually named for the fanciest white house in the area at the time. Casa Blanca has a long and proud Hispanic heritage. The tiny community of Casa Blanca was home to two Medal of Honor recipients. Ysmael R. Villegas, Casa Blanca’s first Medal of Honor recipient, was buried at Riverside National Cemetery in 1978. Staff Sergeant Salvatore Lara became the community’s second Medal of Honor recipient when his Distinguished Service Cross was upgraded in March 2014. His Medal of Honor citation is remarkable in its demonstration of his bravery and selflessness. With Hollywood leading man looks to match, Lara’s Medal of Honor citation reads like a Hollywood action movie, with one major exception– it is true!

Only a private first class at the time of his heroic deeds, Lara was recognized for his valiant actions in Aprilia, Italy in May 1944. During the fight on May 27, “he aggressively led his rifle squad in taking out multiple enemy strongholds and inflicting a large number of casualties on the enemy. The next morning as his company resumed the attack; Staff Sgt. Lara sustained a severe leg wound, but did not stop to receive first aid. He continued until the fight was won.”

Unfortunately, there would be no Hollywood ending for Lara; he died on September 1, 1945, shortly after World War II ended, while serving with the 602nd Ordinance Armament Maintenance Battalion in Europe. He was buried at the Lorraine American Cemetery and Memorial in Saint-Avold, France, a U.S. cemetery managed by the American Battle Monuments Commission.

I marvel at why minority soldiers of this period fought so hard and died for America. The Casa Blanca that he most likely knew was, like the South of the time, divided along racial lines. He fought for a country that did not afford him the rights of a full citizenship, but still, he fought with no regard for his safety. What motivated him to fight so valiantly? It is hard to judge a person’s motivation. I believe the heart of the matter lies in a quote form Cesar Chavez, the Mexican-American Activist and Navy Veteran: “We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community. Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sakes and for our own.”

Please join me in honoring the legacy of Staff Sgt. Lara and all Hispanic-Americans who have served this nation.


portait picture of Greta Hamilton, assistant cemetery director of Riverside National Cemetery

Greta Hamilton is the assistant cemetery director for the Riverside National Cemetery.


Author

Bryce Carpenter

Dr. Bryce Carpenter is the educational outreach programs officer for NCA and a proud Army veteran. Prior to joining VA, he was a teacher, professor and administrator.

Comments

  1. Bryce Carpenter    

    ¡Muchísimas gracias a todos que compartieron! Nuestro gran país, los Estados Unidos, es mejor gracias a las contribuciones de los veteranos Hispanoamericanos. Con much gusto y orguillo compartimos sus cuentos.

    Many thanks to all who posted. Our great nation, the United States, is better thanks to the contributions of Hispanic-American veterans. It is with great pleasure and pride that we share their stories.

  2. Major Ben D. Perez Sr, USAF, Retired    

    Thank You Greta for an outstanding presentation. Hispanic Americans have long contributed to our nations armed forces. When I enlisted in the US Air force as an eighteen year old teenager, I did not enlist as a Hispanic American. I enlisted as an American Military Airman. Race to me did not exist. I was raised in Colton, California by my folks to love and respect everyone. I never let my race, culture or customs play a role in my 30 year military career. My successful military career was based on my hardwork, determination, aspirations, dedication, and never taking “No, you cannot do it” or “you do not qualify”. I was a high school drop-out, but early realized that “Education Opens Doors. So at the end, All Hispanics are Americans and have proven to be a great contribution to our nations national security. Thank You very Much.

  3. Richard Guzman    

    Good job Greta.

    Thank you for sharing that story with us.

  4. William Xavier Cook    

    There are so many such as S/Sgt. Lara who like many Black American servicemen, served this Nation because we love the idea of freedom and equality for all, even though we were not, and have not, received the Freedom and Equality that we deserve. It is time that we remember the great sacrifice that all minority military service persons have made to keep America safe. It is also time that we start treating minority Americans as Americans, and not as “The Other”.

  5. MICHAEL A PEREZ    

    I am proud of all of our veterans and the sacrifices of their families and the fallen especially. In regard to latinos there is no ethnic group in our great country that has been more highly decorated in the annals of our glorious fighting men. There is a wing in the Pentagon celebrating them and their contributions to our nation and this commitment dating back at least to the Civil war. Thank you for reminding us of this in times where deriding people based on their ethnicity , religion or race seems to be in fashion in turn I remind others that this trend is not American and corrosive to all America stands for. God bless America and all who have served and who serve today.

  6. Octavio Mendivil    

    Thank you Greta Hamilton for this wonderful commemoration of a brave young soldier who even though came from a small and seemingly isolated town he fought with a big heart to protect not only his family and loved ones but for all that make this country GREAT regardless of who you are and what your social standing in this country happens to be. In a time where our values as immigrants are being challenged we appreciate the service of all our men and women of the armed forces. Greta, you are worthy of your position as assistant director for your time and effort and Bryce Carpenter we thank you for posting this article.

  7. Richie Snyder    

    Hermano Lara we Army Veterans Love You and Think about Our fallen Conrad – God Bless You SSGT Lara

  8. thomas gomez sr    

    PROUD OF LATINOS! ORGULLOSO! DE MI PUEBLO! WE LOVE AMERICA! WE LOVE GOD. FAMILY AND HARD WORK ! AND ITS PLAIN FOR EVERYONE TO SEE. WE WILL DIE FIGHTING FOR AMERICA. VIA CON DIO HERMANOS.!

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