Tri-Cities' Hispanic heroes want all veterans to be honored

PASCO — Two flags fly from the flagpole in Salvador Beltran Jr.'s Pasco yard.

On top is the familiar red, white and blue. Just below is the flag for the 173rd Airborne, the Army unit Beltran served in during the Vietnam War.

Beltran said he was in the first combat unit to go to Vietnam on May 5, 1965. As a paratrooper, his job was to jump out of planes and handle demolitions.

Today, Beltran, 69, is one of 1.1 million Hispanic American veterans living in the United States, according to U.S. Census Bureau 2009 estimates.

But as groups around the Mid-Columbia and the country recognize veterans on Veterans Day, veterans such as Beltran are less concerned with what specific cultural groups did than with honoring all vets.

Robert Garcia, 28, of Pasco, a National Guard veteran who served in Iraq, said he was told in basic training that the only color that mattered was the green of his uniform.

"I'm not a Hispanic American, I'm an American of Mexican descent," he said.

Demisio Gilbert Lujan, Navy, World War II

The entryway in Demisio Gilbert Lujan's Richland home has a photo box that one of his five daughters made for him.

In it is a photo of Lujan when he was a storekeeper second class in the Navy, along with seven medals that mark the campaigns he was part of during World War II.

Lujan, now 86, dropped out of high school in Trinidad, Colo., and joined the Navy on Dec. 6, 1941, because his "folks couldn't afford to send me to college." The military offered many Hispanic Americans a way to improve their lives.

The day after Lujan joined, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. As a 17-year-old, he was given the choice of withdrawing from the Navy, but he didn't back out.

Lujan was on the USS Trenton, a light cruiser based in Panama that had convoy duty. He later served on the USS Fremont, an APA-44 attack ship that invaded Okinawa.

Lujan said he was in the fourth wave of troops to land on the south end of the Japanese island on what they called Brown Beach. He helped set up a base for the soldiers.

Later, he was on the USS South Dakota, a battleship on its way to invade Japan, when the United States dropped atomic bombs on Japan. Their captain announced the war was over on two different days, Lujan recalled. The second day was real.

Lujan was discharged on June 10, 1946, after five years of service. He got his high school equivalency diploma and used the GI Bill to get a teaching degree from Colorado State at Greeley in 1952. He was the first in his family to earn a college degree.

He said he didn't imagine when he was younger that he would achieve that, or that his five daughters all would earn college degrees.

He taught business and Spanish at Columbia and Hanford high schools in Richland for a total of 19 years before retiring in 1983.

Salvador Beltran Jr., Army, Vietnam War

The Pasco man has a scrapbook filled with photos from his service in Vietnam.

Beltran enlisted in the Army after he quit Cobre High School in Bayard, N.M., at 17. In Vietnam, he was stationed at Bien Hoa, near Saigon, but had missions all over the country with the 173rd Airborne.

They were known as the "sky soldiers," but also as "the herd," which Beltran said was because the Army used cattle trucks to transport them.

Beltran was discharged as a sergeant in 1966 after serving almost 10 years. He broke his left ankle during a jump and couldn't jump any more.

Vietnam was the "unwelcome war," Beltran said, but when he returned to his close-knit hometown of Hanover, N.M., people were glad to see him and proud that he served his country.

Beltran got his high school equivalency degree with encouragement from his wife, Frances. He went on to get a bachelor's degree in Spanish and history in 1972 and a master's degree in school administration in 1974 from Western New Mexico University.

He was assistant principal at Pasco High School for 12 years until he retired in 1997. He now serves as a Columbia Basin College trustee and on the citizen advisory board for the Pasco Police Department, and on St. Patrick's Catholic Church's facilities committee.

All three of the Beltrans' sons are college graduates. Their oldest, Sal, 42, a captain in the Navy, served in Bosnia.

Beltran continues to feel the effects of his service. He suffered bone cancer in his right leg that he believes was caused by exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. The military sprayed the herbicide to eliminate vegetation that provided cover for Viet Cong.

He had numerous surgeries for the cancer between 1980 and 1997, and now has a metal rod in his right femur. He used to need a cane to walk, but now gets around without noticeable effect.

Carlos Fraga, Air Force, Iraq

Carlos Fraga of Richland never was part of the Air Force's spearpoint, as he described those who served in combat. He was behind the point as one of the professionals the military needs to support troops.

As a chemist in the Air Force, Fraga, 39, worked at the Air Force Technical Application Center, which monitors compliance with nuclear treaties and detects nuclear detonations.

While at the center's lab in Sac-ramento from 1995-97, he managed the team that tested debris that airplanes collected on filter paper for any fission products.

Fraga said he also got the chance to be a United Nations inspector in Iraq for 60 days in 1995. The U.N. team was there to check that Iraq was complying with agreements to not use, create or purchase any biological, chemical or missile weapons.

He said he was able to show Iraq had developed precursors for nerve agent, the first time inspectors had evidence Iraq had developed chemical weapons to that level.

Fraga, whose grandparents immigrated from Mexico, attended the Air Force Academy at 17 and graduated with a bachelor's of science degree in chemistry.

The Houston, Texas, native got his master's at the University of Illinois and later a doctorate at the University of Washington, all as part of his job with the Air Force.

He taught chemistry at the Air Force Academy for two years before his discharge in 2005 as a major. Fraga said he hopes to have helped mold some of the next generation of officers at the academy.

Today, Fraga is an Air Force Reserve lieutenant colonel and a senior research scientist for Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland. He has worked on chemical forensics for the Department of Homeland Security, so that if there is a chemical attack tests can determine who might have done it.

He and his wife have three children.

Robert Garcia, Army National Guard, Iraq

The Pasco man was preparing to attend Columbia Basin College when his Army National Guard unit was deployed to Iraq.

That was his first tour, from 2004-05, during Operation Iraqi Freedom. He also was deployed a second time during Operation Enduring Freedom from 2006-08.

Garcia was 18 when he enlisted in the Army, the first on either side of his family to join the military.

As a team leader, he said one of his biggest accomplishments was his work with the Iraqi Army during his first tour at Logistics Support Area Anaconda, also known as Balad Air Base.

His team helped Iraqi soldiers build a mess hall and armory and learn to operate equipment, as well as teach them to run a forward operating base about 15 miles from the main base. "We set a standard for training," he said.

In his second tour, he worked in a Baghdad prison.

Both times he was deployed, CBC held Garcia's scholarships. He finished his associate's degree in agribusiness between deployments and started his associate's degree in business after he returned from his second deployment.

A difficult part of serving overseas was having life at home go on without him, Garcia said. He saw others in his unit struggle with that as well.

"You miss chunks of time," he said

His son Melchor, now 10, was in preschool when he left, and when he came back he was entering first grade.

And he first saw his daughter Catalina, now 4, when she was 2 months old. The next time he saw her she was 1.

Garcia and his wife, Genoveva, 28, also have two other children. But he admits his tours were hard on their marriage. He said he didn't think he needed counseling when he returned from his first tour and ended up temporarily separated from his wife. He thought he'd stayed the same while everyone else had changed.

After his second deployment, Garcia said, he went to counseling and it was a "360-degree" difference. He encourages returning soldiers to go to a couple sessions, even if they feel they don't need it.

"It's better to be told everything is fine rather than figuring out that if you would have done that earlier you wouldn't have lost so much," he said.

Garcia was discharged in March 2009, after nine years of service.

Today, he's a junior at Heritage University pursuing a degree in elementary education. He would like to teach fifth grade.

Garcia also intends to get a master's in school administration, and wants to open a school at Word of Faith, the Kennewick church he attends.

One reason Garcia switched from business to teaching is because he feels it's important for Hispanic vets to get involved in the community and be a role model for youth.

Those who serve in the military are doing it for everyone else, Garcia said, and it means a lot to veterans to be thanked for their service.

"When you look at a veteran, you see what an American is."