WASHINGTON, Sept. 22, 2016 — For the Vargas family, serving in the U.S. military while celebrating their Puerto Rican heritage has been a matter of pride and tradition.
Retired Army Lt. Col. Edwin Vargas, who served from 1972 to 1992, said he enjoyed growing up as an “Army brat.” His father had served in the Korean and Vietnam wars with the 65th Infantry Regiment.
“Every dog he had, he called ‘Okie’ for Okinawa,” he said. “He was part of the occupation forces in Japan, had a break in service, came back during Korea and then in Vietnam. We traveled as a family to Panama [and] Germany, and then he took leave and we saw most of Europe. It was wonderful. It was an experience that I loved. I wanted to follow in his footsteps as a child.”
Vargas said he admired his father and the other Puerto Rican pioneers who “showed the U.S. that Puerto Ricans can fight as good as anybody, and because of that, it made things a little bit easier for me and for anybody who follows in my footsteps. I’m so grateful to them,” he said.
His father was wounded in Korea, but still went to Vietnam and retired as a sergeant first class after 22 years of service.
Vargas said one of the challenges he saw Puerto Ricans facing as officers was language.
“Most of the officers spoke English with a very heavy accent. They would get dinged on communication,” he said. “When I went into the service, there were about 16 of us that went in together from the University of Puerto Rico in San Juan and the University of Puerto Rico Mayaguez campuses. Only six of us were able to serve long enough to retire. Most of the guys who didn’t stay were dinged because of communication. They had very thick accents, and sometimes it’s hard to understand, so when they get rated, they get dinged on that and unfortunately, they can’t progress and they get passed over and end up having to get out of the service.”
Vargas said he did run into a little racism early in his career, but his father had prepared him for it. “It wasn’t from my superiors, but I did run into some from my peers,” he said. “My father had told me, ‘Don’t ever ask a soldier to do something you can’t do, and listen to your [noncommissioned officers].’ I knew I had to go above and beyond. I couldn’t just settle for average. I knew I had to outdo my peers so that I could be considered to move forward.”
He said his culture and family helped him combat the cultural tension.
“Puerto Ricans are a very close-knit family. Family is the center of everything,” he said. “If anything goes wrong, you know the family is there to support you. When I went into the service as a lieutenant, I was 24 years old. I was already married and had a child.”
Vargas said his father wanted him to be an officer and told him not to go into the infantry or airborne specialties, but he did it anyway. “It would prepare me better for going to combat and leading whatever troops I had under my command,” he explained. “I was lucky that I commanded three companies in the Army. I commanded a combat support company in the [Demilitarized Zone] in Korea. I commanded a light infantry company in Panama, and I loved it. I’d go back there in a heartbeat. And then I finally commanded a headquarters company at Fort Buchanan [in Puerto Rico]. Each command prepared me better for the next command.”
In Panama, he said, he was an instructor at the School of the Americas, where he taught the commando course, a six-week ranger course conducted in the jungle.
While Vargas was in Korea in the DMZ in August 1976, he said, a lieutenant and captain were sent to trim a poplar tree and a North Korean contingent attacked them. They were axed to death in Panmunjom.
“We were on alert for a number of weeks, and one of our units ended up going in, tearing up some illegal roadblocks that the North Koreans had put in and cutting down the poplar tree, and that was the end of that,” Vargas said.
While on another mission, he said, a South Korean company commander grabbed one of his South Korean army augmentees because of a misunderstanding.
“He gave me [the soldier] back, and we started socializing, and he asked me where I was from. I said, ‘I’m from Puerto Rico.’ … That’s when I started to learn about the 65th Infantry. He told me they were tremendous soldiers. They would fight with anything they had in their hands. They did a wonderful job in slowing down the Chinese onslaught when they came in. They were tasked to hold them back. It made me feel so proud, because I hadn’t heard anything from my dad except that he was part of the 65th, but I didn’t know about the history.” Vargas said the South Koreans still speak highly of the 65th Infantry Regiment, and it made him feel proud.
Vargas also had the chance to train in South and Central America with 1st Special Operations Command out of Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
“I went to several Central and South American countries and got to do training down there or trained their people down there. This is a Latino culture here, and it’s so much different than the countries we went to. The one I could say it’s most like was Costa Rica,” he said.
Continuing the Tradition
Vargas’ son, former Army Spc. Edwin Vargas III, served 11 years in the Puerto Rico Army National Guard as a military policeman and deployed to Kosovo. Vargas’ son-in-law, medically retired Army Staff Sgt. Alfredo E. Ramirez, served four years as a communications signal support systems specialist and deployed to Iraq in 2010.
Both are proud to carry on the family tradition.
“I wanted to serve my country. I’m very proud of my grandfather. He has a Purple Heart. He never talks about the things he went through. I’m very proud of my dad, too,” said Edwin Vargas. “Growing up as a Puerto Rican in the military, all the little Puerto Rican kids got together, all the family members, even though we were enlisted or officers, we all got together and had fun. I still have friends all over. We’re always like a big family.”
He added, “Besides, Puerto Ricans, we’re very united, very family oriented, and we get along with everybody.”
Ramirez said when he started hearing stories about the military from his wife’s brother, he wanted to join. “Since being a kid, I’ve always wanted to be in the military, but when she shared her experience with her father and her brother and I started hearing their stories, it gave me that push to take the tests and join the Army,” he said.
Ramirez said he joined airborne school because of his father-in-law. “I was the first one in the [aircraft] door,” he said, “and I was like, ‘Oh, my God’ when they opened that door and I looked down and I saw that the cars looked like little boxes.
“After that first jump, I loved it. It was awesome,” he added, his face lighting up.
Ramirez said his 5-year-old son, Alfredo, sometimes puts his uniform hat on and stands at attention or will watch a military movie and will yell, “Hooah.”
“He knows how to say ‘Hooah,’ and that makes me proud,” he said.
Proud to Serve
All members of the Vargas family said they are proud to have served on behalf of Puerto Rico and America. “Our soldiers are as good as any soldiers in the world as long as they’re properly trained and properly led,” Vargas said. “They’ll go to hell and back for their leadership. We’re very proud of being part of the United States armed forces. We’re proud of our service and to of being American citizens.”
“I’m really proud of what I’ve done in the military,” Ramirez said. “I’ve grown up a lot, and I’ve made big changes in my life thanks to the military. “If I could go back, I would do it. Civilians, if you see a soldier in the street, shake their hands and make them feel better. Give them some motivation.”
Edwin Vargas III agreed. “We’re all soldiers,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you come from Puerto Rico or from Utah. We’re all soldiers. We’re all American, and we’re very proud of what we’ve done to serve our country and to be part of this big family of Americans for our country.“It is our country,” he continued, so I feel very proud of that. The United States can always count on us for whatever. We’ll always be with them in whichever conflict or any situation. They can count on us, and we’re proud to serve.”