Military service still a source of pride, opportunity for Latinos
U.S. Army veteran Luis Zendejas recalls his experiences during his military tours in Vietnam and Germany at his home in Calipatria on Tuesday. (JOSELITO VILLERO PHOTO / May 26, 2012)
Fresh out of high school and with the Vietnam War raging on, this love of country would compel Zendejas to join the Army.
He would eventually spend a year in Germany and ultimately be sent to Vietnam, where he served in a small reconnaissance unit with the 101st Airborne Division.
“You have to have a strong mind to cope with (war) when you’re in combat and when you get out,” the Calipatria resident said.
Awarded two Purple Hearts for injuries sustained from two separate encounters with explosive devices, Zendejas has also been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, which doctors have told him likely stems from exposure to Agent Orange.
As someone who doesn’t really talk about his combat experience all that much, Zendejas said he still appreciates getting thanked by strangers for his service.
Nearly seven in 10 Latinos expressed a favorable opinion of America’s armed forces, according to a recent poll conducted by Latin Insights on behalf of Fox News Latino.
Additionally, the number of Hispanics enlisting in the active-duty armed forces has gone up considerably in the past decade, a 2011 Pew Hispanic report stated. In 2003 Latinos made up about 11 percent of new enlistees, while in 2010 they would comprise nearly 17 percent.
Calexico resident Daniel Santillan said a pursuit of the benefits afforded by the Army’s G.I. Bill would lead to a tour of duty in Vietnam in 1967.
Mindful of the “domino effect,” Santillan said he initially had thought that the communist threat back then had to be stopped with force, in order to avoid one day having to “fight them in Mission Beach.” Yet, his attitudes about the Vietnam War would shift with the more people he spoke to and news he heard.
Nonetheless, Santillan has made it a point to this day to participate in ceremonies across the Valley honoring military personnel, he said.
At the 2010 dedication of the Brawley Veterans Memorial Wall of Honor, Santillan said he stenciled the name of a friend with whom he had gone to high school and been in basic training. The friend had recently married, and with a child on the way had decided to take another tour of duty in Vietnam, Santillan said.
“Within a month back in ‘Nam he was killed,” Santillan said.
While the thought of combat is not to her liking, being able to treat the wounded would be, said 16-year-old Cynthia Zendejas, granddaughter of Luis Zendejas.
The Calipatria High School junior was accepted to attend the U.S. Naval Academy summer camp, she said, and is hoping to attend the Annapolis, Md.-based Naval Academy once she graduates high school.
After hearing about what her grandfather had gone through during combat, she said she has developed a greater appreciation for members of the armed services.
And while she isn’t certain if she will stake a career in the Navy, she said she does “want to give back like my grandpa and aunt.”
“I can better serve my country as a doctor than serve in a fight,” Cynthia said.
Staff Writer, Copy Editor Julio Morales can be reached at 760-335-4665 or at email@example.com.