By Katia Lopez-Hodoyan
Amidst a field full of tombstones, Lalo Rodriguez stands proud in his battle field uniform, polished black shoes and airborne barrette. His fingers hold a tight grip on a folded U.S flag moments before he offers it to the family of a fallen veteran he never knew. The latter makes no difference though. If the deceased fought and served during his lifetime, in some sense they did know each other as only fellow veterans can. This undisputable bond shared among veterans motivated Rodriguez to form the Hispanic American Airborne Association in 1991 so that any veteran in the San Diego area could have a proper and traditional military burial at the time of their passing. For 13 years, members of the HAAA have volunteered their time and devotion into organizing burials that pay their respects to veterans from any war, be it World War II, Vietnam or Korea. Even though over a decade filled with services have come and gone, members acknowledge that every ceremony is unique, touching and special in its own way. Just like the life of the recognized veteran.
“I’m not used to funerals,” said Rodriguez. “To this day I can’t see the recipient of the U.S flag in the eyes. It’s too much. I’ll start crying… I just stare at their forehead.”
More than 50 years have passed since Rodriguez and Al Gonzales [member of HAAA] fought in Korea. Not surprisingly though, their memories of the war, both good and bad are as vivid and clear as can be. Freezing temperatures, steep hills and mountains, sleepless nights and chaos filled with gunshots, grenades and screams completed eleven months in the battlefield. A true appreciation of life, discipline and life saving camaraderie also emerged.
At times the temperature were so unbearably cold that Gonzales recalls when he had to hold his comrades feet under his armpits so he wouldn’t get frost bite and succumb to hostile fire.
Now in their 70’s Gonzales and Rodriguez remember with a smirk in their face, when they were about 19 years old. Young and filled with life and dreams, they both recall their oozing desire to go to Korea and serve their country. A heartfelt goal prompted with the yearning desire to win medals, become heroes and receive recognition. Notions that were laced with the naïve and invincible perception of youth.
“Once I was in Korea, I knew that it was far different from the glory I was looking for,” recalls Gonzales. “I remember my fear when Chinese soldiers would come at us like a swarm of ants coming down a hill. If their fellow soldiers died, they would just pick up their weapons and keep on going. There was no stopping them.”
The memories are plentiful, yet it wasn’t until 1990 that Rodriguez was able to talk about them. There was no desire to. The recollection would simply transport him to a time when he struggled between life and death and saw his fellow comrades die in the battlefield.
“I was young and I saw a lot of kids crying,” recalls Rodriguez. “ I couldn’t cry though, because I volunteered to go to Korea.”
Nonetheless, there is no denying that those memories of war are part of their being and soul. They are in essence the base that holds HAAA’s 180 members together, the majority of which are Hispanic. Gonzales decided to come and live in San Diego after having served in Korea and not finding employment in his native Laredo, Texas. An issue he attributes to blatant racism at the time. He found a job as a maintenance employee at a local post office where with time he moved up the corporate ladder. Nonetheless he has deep respect and love for his country.
“All veterans are part of our family,” said Gonzales. “If we don’t perform the traditional burial services, who will? It’s our reason for living.”
It is precisely this sentiment that motivates HAAA to offer their services free of charge to the community. Approximately 1,500 U.S veterans die every day throughout the U.S alone. The city of San Diego being one of the top veteran cities in the nation, offers memorial services every 4th Saturday of every month at the Veterans Museum and Memorial Center in Balboa Park. HAAA also performs services at Riverside National Cemetery as well as the Rosecrans National Cemetery where caskets are no longer allowed due to space scarcity.
Luz Martinez a San Diego resident and New Mexico native had for decades longed for proper recognition of her twin brother’s death in Korea. Having received only a letter stating that Herman Chavira had in fact died in combat on November 22, 1952 did not suffice her family’s yearning for true appreciation and ultimate closure. Although Herman’s body was never recovered, a memorial service at Balboa Park’s memorial center provided the proper and dignified acknowledgment he deserved. Now, the flag Luz received at her brother’s ceremony lies in her home along with Herman’s pictures and medals. The folding and presentation of the U.S flag, gun salutes, and the sound of taps among the open air came to represent the respect and salute to a life catalyzed with a few meaningful worlds. “On behalf of the President of the United States of America and a grateful Nation, I present this Flag as a token of our appreciation for the Honorable and Faithful service rendered by your loved one.”
“It was a beautiful ceremony,” says Luz. “My parents never received a flag so I truly appreciate what HAAA did for our family. Marines, Pearl Harbor Survivors, Korean Veterans… They were all there.”
Funded solely by donations and an occasional tamale fundraiser, HAAA members prove to have the stamina and endurance they were once oblivious of as young fighters. Today, more than 50 years after the war and amidst battle wounds and the accumulation of age, they still have enough energy to stand tall on summer heat weather with bad knees, legs and aching hips and simply fess up to the pain as they salute their fallen comrades with pride.
Interestingly enough, during the two-hour conversation, not once were the political or social aspects of the Cold War mentioned by the veterans. Years plagued with the country’s fear of communism and its potential threat to democracy seemed somewhat overshadowed by the importance of recognizing one’s service to their country.
For further information on the services provided for U.S veterans contact the Hispanic American Airborne Association at (619) 392-2910.