Remarks at a White House Ceremony Honoring Hispanic Americans in the United States Armed Forces

September 16, 1983

Thank you. I want to extend to all of you a warm welcome. Many ceremonies are held here in the Rose Garden, all of them for important purposes, all of them -- well, I don't mind telling you, never mind that, this moment is special for me, and I think for the American people.

During the Korean war, James Michener wrote about the lonely and sometimes thankless life endured by those who wear their country's uniform. In the final scene of his novel, ``The Bridges at Toko Ri,'' an admiral stands on the darkened bridge of his carrier, watching pilots take off on missions from which he knows some may never return. And as he waits, he asks in the silent darkness, ``Where did we get such men?'' Almost a generation later, I asked that same question when our POW's were returned from savage captivity in Vietnam: ``Where did we find such men?''

Today, as so many proud men and women continue to serve their country in the cause of freedom, millions of Americans wonder with me in awe and gratitude, ``How are we so lucky to have them, where did we find them?'' Well, the truth is, of course, we find these young Americans where we've always found them -- in our villages and towns, on our city streets, in our shops, and on our farms. And always, we've found them when you speak of Americans, any Americans, you always keep in mind, well, the bloodlines of all Americans go back to all the nations of the world, to every corner of the world. And so we have found them. We've found them very proudly among the ranks of Americans of Hispanic descent, and I mention this because this is Hispanic Heritage Week.

A word seems to be said on this point. We're here today in the presence of authentic heroes. Those of you before me have achieved in life, not as a result -- we're going to have to do something about that\1\ (FOOTNOTE) -- not as result of any special treatment or artificial quotas or political favoritism, but as talented individuals on your own. Your acts of personal sacrifice and valor, too numerous to relate, are part of the thrilling story of Hispanic heroes in defense of freedom, a story so powerful and moving that it sometimes defies belief.

(FOOTNOTE) \1\The President was referring to the noise of an airplane flying overhead.

Since the Civil War, Americans of Hispanic descent have been winning Medals of Honor. To this date, there have been 36 such winners, an incredible number, all out of proportion to the percentage of the Hispanic population in our country. The stories of these Americans, the stories of many of you here today who were wounded, decorated, and promoted in your country's service, account for some of the most astonishing acts of valor and personal sacrifice in the history of our nation's armed services.

You know, I must tell you I saw a wonderful film recently -- believe it or not, the story of a street, a street in an Hispanic neighborhood, what used to be called Second Street in Silvis, Illinois. At the end of it is a monument, the end of that street, to eight heroes from this street who gave their lives in the defense of America. In fact, from 22 families on this block, 84 men served in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. In World War II and Korea, 57 came from that street. The two Sandoval families sent 13 -- 6 from one family, 7 from the other, and 3 of the Sandoval sons never came back. I think you will agree with one man in the film who says they so willingly defended America because it was for them, as for all of us, a place of opportunity. I think you will agree with his words when he said, ``I don't think there's any more to prove than has been proven on this street.'' And perhaps you will understand why the name on Second Street in Silvis, Illinois, was changed a few years back. The new name is Hero Street.

But Hero Street is only one Hispanic contribution to America's defense. Indeed, ``first in, last to leave'' seems to be the watchwords of Hispanic American heroism. One of the units to fight the first major battle of the Civil War was Hispanic, and one of the last units of the Confederacy to fight on after Lee's surrender was Hispanic. Hispanic members of the New Mexico National Guard were among the original cadre of Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders. Among your number have been the first American flier to be shot down over Vietnam; the first American to escape from captivity in Vietnam and make his way to freedom through Communist-infested territory; the last marine to leave Saigon, a young sergeant who had also fought in the early years of the Vietnam war; and, of course, the last American to have received the Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry. And it's with a special sense of gratitude that we remember the supreme sacrifice of Staff Sergeant Alexander Ortega and Corporal Pedro Valle, gallant marines who recently gave their lives in the service of peace in Beirut, Lebanon.

Hispanic Americans continue to excel in the Department of Defense mission, which is to preserve peace through strength. We have with us today bright and dedicated young men and women from our service academies, our enlisted ranks, and our officers corps. We also find more and more Hispanic general and flag officers, many of whom are here today, providing strong and sensitive leadership in promoting peace within this hemisphere and around the world. Our fine Hispanic women, military women, are equal partners with their male colleagues on the defense team. They're competing successfully in many nontraditional career fields and are advancing rapidly. And the Hispanic heritage of strong family values has particularly enriched our American military community.

Here I would like to pay special tribute to our military spouses and family members whose sacrifices on behalf of this great nation too frequently go unnoticed. America owes all of them and all of you who are here a special thank you.

This record of honor is one that Americans of Hispanic descent take great pride in, and it's part of the proud heritage they pass on to their children. And by the way, in case you haven't heard, at our request the United States Postal Service will be issuing a commemorative stamp in honor of this enormous and awe-inspiring record. And this is a replica of what that stamp will look like. And if you can't read the printing, and if you will forgive my probably incorrect pronunciation, it says, ``Una herencia de valor [A heritage of valor]!7E7E7E''

But let me assure you this record of valor, all Americans take pride in. And that is the real importance of this ceremony. We celebrate this day just as we've celebrated the events of Hispanic Heritage Week. We pay tribute to Americans of Hispanic descent, but especially to the culture and the values that bred in men and women like yourselves a respect for family, work, neighborhood, and religion, a belief in duty to God and country and fellow man. More than ever, today America needs these values, these ideals. More than ever, America needs your example. And so we honor you today not just because of our pride in what you've achieved, but because you live by the values and beliefs that account for America's greatness and that keep her strong and free.

We're just now emerging from a time when many people here in Washington thought the business of governing meant only assembling coalitions of special interests, groups that could vote or exert pressure to push government in a certain direction. Well, yes, government must recognize the legitimate rights and concerns of individual Americans and social, ethnic, or racial groups they belong to. But I've always believed that it is ideas, it is hope and idealism that count most with the American people.

When they speak out on the issues of the day, when they go to the polls, most Americans, especially Hispanic Americans, know how high the stakes are. They know their children's future is at stake. They know the future of freedom depends not on ``what's in it for me?'' but on the ethic of what's good for the country, what will serve and protect freedom, and they pass this precious gift on to future generations. You've dedicated your lives to that proposition. You stand ready to defend America today just as valiantly as you have in the past. You do so because America and all she stands for means more to you than self-interest or personal gain ever could. The calculus of the self-seeking is not for you; duty, honor, and country are.

``A man wouldn't sell his life to you,'' William Manchester wrote of his days as a marine in the South Pacific. ``He wouldn't sell his life to you, but he will give it to you for a piece of colored ribbon.'' He meant simply that shared values and the hope of freedom have always meant more to the American people, and especially to Americans of Hispanic descent, than private gain or personal interest.

As I said to the G.I. Forum a few weeks ago in Texas, Americans of Hispanic descent have always understood this better than most. You've known that the ideals, the faith, and the dreams of a people mean far more than a thousand promises of an easy life or a comfortable existence. You've reminded us with the example of your lives that independence, honor, and devotion to country and family are more than just words. ``There are those I know,'' the poet Archibald MacLeish once said, ``who will reply that the liberation of humanity, the freedom of man and mind is nothing but a dream.'' They're right. It is. It is the American dream.

Well, it's your dream and our dream, one that you've given of your lives and talents to protect and preserve. And so today our purpose is simple. On behalf of the American people, I want simply to say something that should have been said a long time ago. I want to thank Americans of Hispanic descent. Thank you for accounting for so much of our economic and social progress as a nation, for enriching our national culture and heritage, but most of all, for upholding the values that account for America's greatness. That's what made us a beacon to the oppressed and the poor of the world. There's no better symbol of those values and that greatness than those of you here in uniform today. We honor you, we thank you. We want you to know that as you continue to serve your country, our thoughts and our grateful prayers are with you.

God bless you all.

Note: The President spoke at 9:52 a.m. in the Rose Garden at the White House.

Prior to the President's remarks, Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger addressed the audience and introduced Gen. Richard E. Cavazos, FORSCOM (United States Armed Forces Command), the first Hispanic 4-star general in the U.S. Army.