JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas -- An 86-year-old Korean War veteran was awarded the nation's highest civilian honor in a bedside ceremony at San Antonio Military Medical Center here June 5.
Retired Staff Sgt. Jose Diaz-Rivas received the Congressional Gold Medal for his contributions alongside the Soldiers of the 65th Infantry Regiment "Borinqueneers," a Puerto Rican U.S. Army unit that fought in nine of 10 campaigns during the Korean War.
"Not many people receive this medal; I feel very proud" said Diaz-Rivas, as he accepted the medal surrounded by family, friends and SAMMC staff.
The 65th Infantry Regiment stood up in 1899 and served in World War I and World War II, but it was during the Korean War that they made their mark in extensive combat. While instrumental in many operations, one of their most significant achievements took place in early 1951, during Operation Thunderbolt. Ordered to seize two hills held by the Chinese 149th Division, the Soldiers charged with bayonets fixed to their rifles and forced the Chinese troops to vacate, paving the way for the Eighth Army to recapture Seoul.
Diaz-Rivas, a Puerto Rican native who enlisted at age 16, describes his unit as a "fierce" group. He recalled how they would sing their regimental song as they marched into for battle. From his bed, he began to softly sing the hymn he learned more than 65 years ago: "Arriba muchachos vamos a zarpar; a lejanas tierras vamos a pelear." (Get up boys, we are shipping out; to faraway lands we must go and fight.)
"The Americans would say, those Puerto Ricans are crazy. They are going to fight and they are singing; they are happy," he said with a laugh. "They didn't understand that singing gave us courage."
Their courage and sacrifice is reflected in the number of honors they garnered. For the Korean War alone, the regiment earned more than 2,700 Purple Hearts, 600 Bronze Stars, 250 Silver Stars, nine Distinguished Service Crosses and one Medal of Honor.
The unit now adds a Congressional Gold Medal to its roster, joining recipients such as George Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and groups such as the American Red Cross and the Tuskegee Airmen. The Congressional Gold Medal and Presidential Medal of Freedom are the highest civilian awards in the U.S., awarded to people or groups with achievements that have a lasting impact on American history and culture.
Diaz-Rivas originally had hoped to accept the medal alongside his fellow Soldiers at the U.S Capitol on April 13, but was unable to attend the ceremony due to his declining health. However, his family and caregivers decided a medal in the mail would not suffice, and Brooke Army Medical Center Commander Col. Jeffrey Johnson agreed.
Johnson, BAMC Command Sgt. Maj. Albert Crews and other leaders gathered on a Sunday afternoon to honor Diaz-Rivas' contributions.
"We honor you and thank you for your sacrifice," the commander said as he presented the medal to Diaz-Rivas.
For his personal courage in the Korean War, Diaz-Rivas was awarded a Combat Infantryman Badge and a Korean Service Medal with two Bronze Stars. He later joined the Air Force and fought in the Vietnam War, for which he received a Commendation Medal from President Lyndon B. Johnson for rescuing and transporting wounded Soldiers behind enemy lines. He retired from the military in 1971 with 21 years of service. The father of four recently celebrated his 58th wedding anniversary.
"My father is very proud of his medal," said his daughter, Ivonne Diaz-Navedo. "But we are proud of all of his contributions. It's a complete life he's lived."
U.S. Senator Marco Rubio praised Diaz-Rivas' unit during a Senate Floor Speech on April 13. "It is my hope that the more than 1,000 Borinqueneer veterans living throughout the United States, as well as the family members of those fallen, departed, and missing in action, will know at last that their service has received the ultimate tribute from a grateful nation," he said.