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Hispanics quietly serve, protect freedom of U.S.

SHARE Hispanics quietly serve, protect freedom of U.S.

Eloy Romero lives on a quiet street in a quiet neighborhood in West Jordan and has for more than 25 years. He has worked at the same place more than 30 years. He is your average Utahn.

Eloy has been my friend since the third grade. We grew up in Lark, a mining town at the foot of the copper mine and the Oquirrh Mountains. Lark was a great place. All summer we played marbles and basketball and hiked in Butterfield Canyon fighting imaginary foes or hunting elusive rabbits. We played dodge ball and baseball and rode our bikes up the canyon to pick chokecherries, which our mothers made into jam.

In high school we formed the Spanish Armada. Our makeshift basketball team traveled in Gene Martinez' 1953 Chevy to various LDS wards for Catholic versus Mormon games. Many a winter evening was spent on an LDS basketball court laughing with our Mormon friends. Eloy, at 5-foot 10-inches was our big man. Bob Lopez was our ball hog (every team has one). Dave Avila was our player/coach (and if we ever forgot it, he would take his ball and go home). Ernie Rodriguez was our real small forward. Ben Trujillo lent moral support. And I, if memory doesn't fail, was the best shot in the valley. We were short (aren't all Catholics?), but, man, could we run.

After high school, one by one my LDS friends went on missions. The Armada went into the military. It is a fact of Hispanic life that a male's first adventure is usually in the military. My father served. My uncles served. My brother, Larry, was a helicopter door gunner in 'Nam. Hispanics have distinguished themselves in the defense of our country in every war we have ever fought. Some 500,000 Hispanics fought in World War II. Thirty-eight Hispanics have earned the Medal of Honor. One, Jose F. Valdez, is from Pleasant Grove.

Eloy and Bobby became Marines. Ernie, Gene and I went Army. Ben wanted to see the world and joined the Navy. Dave was the smart one. He went to college. Upon our discharges, we resumed the Armada tradition of playing cards and swapping stories of basketball games, friends and, eventually, of our children. As we settled down, we spent less time reliving the past and more time talking about our dreams for our children.

After 'Nam, Eloy was 20, unskilled and unemployed. As part of an affirmative action effort, he was hired at Hercules. He took, in his words, "a lot of flak" from co-workers for being one of the first Hispanics hired. At 22, when kidney transplants were experimental, Eloy donated a kidney to his brother Fred. Twenty-nine years later Fred is still alive.

After his divorce, Eloy quietly raised his two daughters and son. He occasionally plays cards with his friends and goes fishing in American Fork Canyon. A quiet life for someone who did something that Arnold Schwarzeneggar, Rocky Balboa and John Wayne only dream about.

It was Dec. 11, 1968, that Company L, 3rd Battalion of the 3rd Marine Division engage a large North Vietnamese Army unit on a no-name hill in South Vietnam. The company was pinned down by heavy fire and unable to advance or retreat. They were taking casualties. Cpl. Romero, just 19, had been in Vietnam three months. He was scared as he tried to locate the enemy.

At some time seemingly all American males fantasize about this type of situation. Maybe it's because television and books glorify war. In our mind's eye, we stand up and single-handedly wipe out the enemy and save our comrades, as we did many times in Butterfield Canyon.

But for Cpl. Romero this was real. The Secretary of the Navy, upon presenting Romero the Navy Achievement Medal described the reason for the honor: While rounds whirred by him, Romero, disregarding danger to himself, stood up and carried a machine gun straight up the hill. Alone, he moved forward into the enemy fire and "deliver(ed) a heavy volume of suppressive fire on the hostile position, which enabled his comrades to assault the enemy soldiers and force them to retreat." Just like we practiced in Lark.

In time of turmoil, in time of need or in time of peace, the Spanish Armada, without hesitation and like their forefathers, quietly serve their country. After all, they're Utahns, extraordinary Americans.

Utah native Mike Martinez has previously worked in the Utah State Attorney General's Office, the Salt Lake County Attorney's Office and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Washington, D.C. E-mail: mmartinez@inquo.net