By Mrs. Melissa K Buckley (Leonard Wood)July 3, 2014
To some, they looked like old papers -- but one sharp-eyed Cuban-American knew instantly he was looking at a rare piece of Fort Leonard Wood's history.
Two of the post's namesake's personal certificates, dating back to the 1800s, have traveled 1,410 miles for display at Fort Leonard Wood thanks to 88-year-old Benito Hernandez, of Tamarac, Fla.
Hernandez, originally from Matanzas, Cuba, spotted the certificates while visiting family in Cuba. During one trip, about 10 years ago, he met a man selling documents on the street.
Hernandez's nephew, Roberto Hernandez, recounted his uncle's story.
"There was a building that housed old archives and documents -- the Cuban government basically wanted all of that gone. Those documents pertained to the U.S.'s role in Cuba prior to the Revolution. The Cuban government had ordered all of the documents to be destroyed, but somehow this gentleman, who was authorized to dispose of these documents, ended up selling them on the street," Roberto said.
"My uncle likes Cuban history; he likes being an American citizen and reading up on U.S. history; so, when he saw the certificates he knew the documents were significant," Roberto said. "He knew it was a big deal, and he wanted to protect them."
According to Benito, he paid $500 for each of the two documents.
"Prior to leaving the country I verified with Cuban customs that I was able to remove the documents from the country," Benito said.
Roberto said his uncle wanted to find Leonard Wood's heirs, but they didn't have any luck.
"We did the next best thing. Using my resources as a retired Army master sergeant, I contacted representatives from the Fort Leonard Wood museum," Roberto said.
Troy Morgan, U.S. Army Engineer Museum director said he was excited to receive the documents.
"Although the post is named after Gen. Leonard Wood, and the museum has a permanent exhibit devoted to Gen. Leonard Wood, the museum does not have many artifacts of General Wood," Morgan said. "In this generation where everything is available on the Internet, the Fort Leonard Wood Museum Complex gets more than 158,000 visitors a year. People want to see iconic pieces of American history up close and personal. These certificates will help us tell another part of General Wood's story."
Morgan said the documents are membership certificates for Veteran's fraternal associations. One is for the Order of Indian Wars of the United States, and the other is for the Medal of Honor Legion.
"These two societies are loosely the equivalent of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of today. Anyone who fought in the Indians War was eligible to join the Order of Indian Wars of the United States. The Medal of Honor Legion certificate is very rare, because to be a member of this society you had to be a Medal of Honor recipient."
Located in the center of the John B. Mahaffey Museum Complex is the permanent Gen. Leonard Wood exhibit.
"We will place one certificate on exhibit at a time, and rest the second one. That way, these certificates will be available for visitors to enjoy for hundreds of years," Morgan said.
Roberto said every times he talks to his uncle he wants to know when Roberto is going to drive to Fort Leonard Wood to take a look at the documents on display.
"He would love to go to Fort Leonard Wood, but he is 88 and his health is starting to fail him and he can't make the trip," Robert said.
Benito said he is just happy that the certificates he saved are going to be treasured for years to come.
"I love the United States and Cuba. I wanted to make sure that these documents are protected and appreciated," Benito said. "I feel honored that I personally was able to save a piece of Gen. Leonard Wood's history for your archives."
Gen. Leonard Wood's history in Cuba
When war with Spain began in 1898, Wood was given command of the 1st Volunteer Cavalry. Wood led his men at Las Guasimas and San Juan Hill. He led the 2nd Cavalry Brigade for the remainder of the war.
When the fighting ended, Wood remained in Cuba and was the Military Governor of Cuba from 1900 to 1902.
In that position, he instituted a number of political, social, and educational reforms. He also worked to improve the medical and sanitary conditions on the island. Before leaving Cuba, he received his first star as a brigadier general in the Regular Army. That rank can be seen notated on the Order of Indian Wars of the United States certificate.