Not every American hero was an American when they fought in the nation’s wars, including Medal of Honor recipient Alfred V. Rascon.
As the retired Army lieutenant colonel often says: “Mexican by birth, American by choice.”
He stands out in the long line of immigrants who have fought for the U.S. before they officially became Americans.
In March 1966, Rascon performed “extraordinarily courageous acts” as a combat medic in Vietnam, for which he was recommended for the Medal of Honor. However, at the time, he was awarded the Silver Star.
He would not be naturalized as an American citizen until a year later in Los Angeles before a somewhat skeptical immigration officer, Rascon said in an interview with Military.com.
“The funniest thing happened when I took the exam to become a U.S. citizen,” he said. “The guy was really terse, and he looked at me and said, ‘You speak English pretty well.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I can articulate this language pretty well.’
“It so happens that there had been an article about me getting the Silver Star, and it was in the papers. And the guy happened to pick up the paper,” Rascon continued. “And there’s a picture of me, and he says, ‘That looks like you.’ I said, ‘That is me.’ The guy said, ‘OK, I have to ask you some questions.’ He ended up asking me one question, and that was the end of it.”
As Rascon and other veterans can attest, issues of race, creed, ethnicity and country of birth tend to vanish in a combat zone, where the team is all that matters.
“That’s the thing about it in the military,” he said. “One of the greatest things that happened to me was the guys I was with in Vietnam and other places,” who couldn’t have cared less that he had been born in Mexico.
They would sometimes joke: “Hey, we didn’t know you were a g–damned immigrant, [but] that didn’t matter to us. It just didn’t matter,” Rascon said.
After a reunion in the 1980s, members of his platoon began lobbying for an upgrade to Rascon’s Silver Star, spurring Congress to take action to get around the usual five-year time limit for awarding the Medal of Honor.
At the White House on Feb. 8, 2000, then-President Bill Clinton bestowed the nation’s highest award for valor on Alfred Velazquez Rascon.
Immigrants’ Contributions to America’s Military
Of the more than 3,400 Medals of Honor awarded since the Civil War, 22% have gone to immigrants, according to the nonprofit National Foundation for American Policy (NFAP).
In recent years, recipients of the Medal of Honor have included Florent Groberg, who was born in France but was awarded the medal in 2015 for actions in Afghanistan in 2012; Tibor Rubin, born in Hungary and awarded the medal in 2005 for his actions during the Korean War; and Leslie Sabo Jr., who was born in Austria and was posthumously honored in 2012, 42 years after he died in Cambodia.
Twenty-nine U.S. Customs and Immigration Service facilities have been named for Medal of Honor recipients who were immigrants, according to USCIS.
Currently, about 80,000 immigrants are serving in the U.S. military, and about 1.5 million veterans are immigrants or the children of immigrants, according to a May 2020 report by NFAP.
The report also indicated that tighter restrictions on immigration under the Trump administration had resulted in fewer immigrant troops becoming naturalized.
“The denial rate for military naturalizations increased from 7% in fiscal 2016 to 17% in fiscal 2019,” NFAP reported. As a result, “the number of immigrants in the military who naturalized dropped by 54%, from 8,606 in fiscal 2016 to 3,987 in fiscal 2019.”
In addition, the Military Accessions Vital to National Interest (MAVNI) program, begun in 2009 to recruit non-citizens with language and other skills critical to the military, effectively ended in 2018 after more than 10,000 recruits had gone through the program.
Based on U.S. Census Bureau data, the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute estimates that Mexico and the Philippines were the top two countries of birth for immigrant veterans in 2018, with 92,000 and 91,000, respectively.
Other top countries of origin were Germany, with 24,000; Colombia, 20,000; and Great Britain, 19,000.
According to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, the names of 120 service members who listed foreign countries as their homes of record are on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall out of more than 58,000 names of service members killed in that war.
The countries include Australia, the Bahamas, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Britain, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Panama, Peru, the Philippines and Switzerland.
Rain of Grenades in Vietnam
Rascon said he never thought about whether he was a citizen growing up in Oxnard, California. He was born in Chihuahua, Mexico, in 1945 and came to the U.S. as a toddler with his parents.
His neighborhood had bars frequented by service members he came to admire, and he dreamed of becoming a paratrooper. At age seven, he fashioned a parachute and jumped off a roof, breaking a wrist, he recalled.
At age 17, his parents signed papers that allowed him to join the Army. He was a legal permanent resident at the time and entitled to join the military. But he said, “I didn’t know anything about that; nobody asked me what I was.”
He would become a combat medic with the Reconnaissance Platoon, Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion (Airborne), 503rd Infantry, 173rd Airborne Brigade.
The unit was first sent to Okinawa in 1965 and then ordered to Vietnam that May. On March 16, 1966, his unit was tasked with going to the aid of a unit from another battalion that was heavily engaged.
“We could hear the mortars” striking at the other unit, he said. “We were running at times on the trails [to get to the other unit].
“The weird thing was we kept finding bodies [of Vietnamese] — one, two, three. One time, we found two or three wheelbarrows [stacked with bodies].”
He speculated that the enemy had left them there to be retrieved after the battle.
“That’s when the party started,” Rascon said. “Everything was going on — hand grenades, machine guns.”
His sergeant told him to stay put, but he went forward and tried to come to the aid of a badly wounded M-60 machine gunner.
“I got hit in the hip, came out my collarbone. I dragged him out, and I dragged him off the trail. By then, he was dead. After that, it was all craziness,” he said.
Rascon would use his body to shield others from grenades as he tended their wounds. He recalled an incident that would seem made up, except to combat veterans.
At one point, he ripped a soldier’s pants leg to get at a wound. The soldier screamed at him: “Doc, if I ever get out of here, I’m gonna kick your butt.”
The mosquitos were getting at his exposed leg, and the itch was driving him crazy, Rascon said.
His medal citation describes Rascon coming to the aid of a point soldier who had been wounded by small-arms fire and grenades.
“Disregarding his own life and his numerous wounds, Specialist Rascon reached and covered him with his body, absorbing the blast from the exploding grenades and saving the soldier’s life, but sustaining additional wounds to his body,” the citation states. “While making his way to the wounded point squad leader, grenades were hurled at the sergeant. Again, in complete disregard for his own life, he reached and covered the sergeant with his body, absorbing the full force of the grenade explosions.
“Once more, Specialist Rascon was critically wounded by shrapnel, but disregarded his own wounds to continue to search and aid the wounded,” it adds. “Severely wounded, he remained on the battlefield, inspiring his fellow soldiers to continue the battle.
“After the enemy broke contact, he disregarded aid for himself, instead treating the wounded and directing their evacuation,” according to the citation.
Rascon eventually went back to Los Angeles, picked up a college degree and then returned to the active-duty Army as an officer.
In 1973, he was in Vietnam again as an adviser to the South Vietnamese when a cease-fire was declared. It would be short-lived as the North Vietnamese pressed south and then surged into Saigon.
“The sad thing about it — we ended up leaving [the South Vietnamese troops he was advising], left them with nothing,” Rascon said. “We’re gone, and they’re there. I don’t know whatever became of them.”
— Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.
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