American families who have immigrated from another country often feel like they have something to prove. Especially if they bear an accent, speak a different language, or even have a darker skin color.
As immigrants, they’ve overcome their own adversities to move to America and make a new life for themselves and their family. They strive to show that their sense of nationalism, patriotism and love for America runs just as deep as a native-born American.
A big way people show their national pride and strength of character is by serving in the military. Here are 12 of the greatest Hispanic-American veterans, and their stories of service:
12. Marisol Chalas
Maj. Chalas came to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic at the age of nine. She enlisted in the Army in 1990 and graduated aviation school at the top of her class, going on to pilot Black Hawk helicopters.
She has obtained her MMA BS in Marine Engineering from the Academy, an MBA from J. Mack Robinson School of Business, Georgia State University, and has extensive military education credentials. She’s served for over 25 years in the Reserves and is currently an Army Congressional Fellow.
“Never in my wildest dreams would I have envisioned myself working as an Army Congressional Fellows, much less working in the Capitol along Congress Staff … This continues to prove that hard work, perseverance and determination gives you the ability to achieve the impossible,” Chalas said.
11. Edward Hidalgo
Secretary Hidalgo was born in Mexico City, and moved to New York with his family at six years old. He received his J.D. from Columbia Law School in 1936, but his career went on pause when the U.S. entered World War II.
Hidalgo went from lieutenant in the U.S. Naval Reserve, to legal advisor in Uruguay to the ambassador of the Emergency Advisory for Political Defense, to air combat intelligence officer on the carrier USS Enterprise.
He became the first Hispanic Secretary of the Navy in 1979, and one of his biggest goals was to recruit more Hispanic-Americans into the Navy. Hidalgo is a recipient of the Bronze Star Medal, Knight of the Royal Order of Vasa (Sweden), and Order of the Aztec Eagle (Mexico).
10. Manuel John Fernandez, Jr.
Captain Fernandez was the first Hispanic-American pilot to reach flying ace status, as he shot down more than 14 MiG 15 aircraft in the Korean War. This made him the third-leading American ace for that conflict. He joked that if the Air Force had permitted him two more months, he would have maintained his #1 spot.
Fernandez was born in Florida, but his grandparents had emigrated from Spain to Cuba, and finally to the U.S., settling in Miami. His dad worked as a radio operator for Pan American World Airways, which inspired Fernandez to get his private pilot’s license at the impressive age of 15.
Serving in both World War II and the Korean War, Fernandez is a highly-decorated pilot, receiving the Silver Star and the Distinguished Service Cross for “extraordinary heroism” in Korea. After service, he piloted for the CIA and South Florida Drug Interdiction Task Force.
9. Philip Bazaar
Seaman Bazaar was an immigrant from Chile and joined the Union Navy during the American Civil War. He was assigned to the USS Santiago de Cuba.
In late 1864, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant ordered the ship to assault Confederate stronghold Fort Fisher of North Carolina. The assault failed, and during a second attempt, Bazaar and five other crew members carried dispatches under heavy fire in order to maintain communication between the ship and land crew, ensuring Union victory.
They six men were given Medals of Honor for their bravery. Bazaar is the first Hispanic-American to have received this distinguished award.
8. Marco Martinez
Sergeant Martinez was the only son of an Army Ranger, but spent his younger years getting in and out of trouble. He turned his life around by joining the Marine Corps in 2001.
In 2003, Martinez played a key role in an attack against Saddam Hussein’s fighting forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom. When his squad leader was wounded, Martinez took control and advanced on the enemy, firing an RPG to allow a wounded Marine to be evacuated, and single-handedly assaulting the enemy building.
For these actions, he received the Navy Cross — the first to be given to a Hispanic-American service member since the Vietnam War. He later wrote a memoir entitled Hard Corps: From Gangster to Marine Hero.
7. Agustin Ramos Calero
Sergeant First Class Calero was the most decorated Hispanic man in World War II. He trained with the 65th Infantry Regiment, which was a Puerto Rican regiment of the U.S. Army, and fought on the frontlines with the Third U.S. Infantry Division in Europe.
Calero was called the “One-Man Army” by his fellow soldiers in the war. He was wounded four times, but continued to engage in combat successfully. This earned him 22 decorations and medals for his actions, including the Silver Star.
Going on to fight in the Korean War, Calero retired from service with 21 years under his belt. He was buried with full military honors in the Puerto Rican National Cemetery.
6. David Farragut
Admiral Farragut was the first person to achieve the rank of rear admiral, vice admiral, and admiral in the U.S. Navy. His father was born in Spain. When his mother passed, he was fostered by naval officer David Porter, and fought in the War of 1812 at age 11.
He also served in the Mexican-American War and the American Civil War. He is known for his order at the Battle of Mobile Bay: “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”
A strong Unionist, Farragut served for six decades in the Navy — he entered as a midshipman at 9 years old, and was active until his death in 1870. His name is worn by two Navy destroyers and the famous Farragut Square in Washington, D.C.
5. Richard E. Cavazos
General Cavazos became the first brigadier general in 1976, and the first Hispanic-American four-star general in 1982. Born in Kingsville, Texas in 1929, he was a distinguished graduate from ROTC at Texas Tech and went on to the U.S. Army.
Cavazos set himself apart when he was deployed to Korea with the 65th Infantry Regiment. He led his men to two separate victories in treacherous battles, earning the Silver Star and Distinguished Service Cross.
His citation reads: “Exposed to heavy hostile fire, Lieutenant Cavazos located five men who had been wounded in the action. He evacuated them, one at a time, to a point on the reverse slope of the hill from which they could be removed to the safety of the friendly lines. Lieutenant Cavazos then made two more trips between the United Nations position and the enemy-held hill searching for casualties and evacuating scattered groups of men who had become confused.”
As a lieutenant colonel, Cavazos’s actions in the Vietnam War awarded him a second Distinguished Service Cross. He retired in 1984, after 33 years in the Army.
4. Rafael Peralta
Sergeant Peralta emigrated to the U.S. with his family from Mexico City in the ‘80s. His father died in a workplace accident, so Peralta assumed the mantle as head of the household for his three younger siblings.
Receiving his green card in 2000, Peralta joined the Marine Corps and subsequently became a U.S. citizen. He deployed to Iraq in 2004 as scout team leader to the 3rd Marine Regiment, and cleared houses in Operation Phantom Fury.
In the fourth house clearing, Peralta opened a door and was immediately hit by AK-47 fire, leaving him wounded on the floor. When the insurgents threw a hand grenade, Peralta reportedly pulled the explosive under his body, saving the lives of three other Marines.
He was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross — the second highest honor a Marine can receive — and is buried at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego.
3. Marcario Garcia
Staff Sergeant Marcario Garcia was the first Mexican immigrant to receive the Medal of Honor.
Born in Villa de Castanos in 1920, Garcia’s family immigrated to the U.S. four years later. Garcia worked as a cotton farmer in Sugar Land, Texas until the outbreak of World War II. He joined the U.S. Army voluntarily, though he was not a citizen, and was assigned to the 4th Infantry Division.
On November 27, 1944, Garcia, the squad leader in his platoon, was engaged in fire against German troops near Grooshau. The platoon was unable to advance due to machine gun fire, so Garcia took it upon himself to go alone; he destroyed two enemy emplacements and captured four prisoners, fighting through his wounds until they secured the enemy position.
For his actions, Garcia was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1945. He later became a face for a Hispanic civil rights movement, when he was denied service at a restaurant and beaten by the owner. When a newspaper reported the incident, charges were brought up against Garcia himself, leading to major backlash from the Hispanic community.
In 1947, Garcia became a U.S. citizen, and received his high school diploma in 1951. He went on to marry and have three children. He worked as a counselor for the VA for 25 years, and was buried with full military honors in 1972.
2. Juan Sebastian Restrepo
Private First Class Restrepo is one of the most well-known Hispanic soldiers, as the war documentary Restrepo was made in his honor.
Born in Colombia in 1986, Restrepo immigrated to America with his mother and two brothers at the age of seven. He loved to play sports, and dreamed of being a doctor like his father and grandfather before him.
However, he was unable to afford college, and moved back to Colombia to study classical violin. He eventually returned to the U.S. to enlist in the military, and went on to airborne school at Fort Benning before completing specialized medical training in Italy and Germany.
Restrepo was deployed to Afghanistan in 2007 with the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. When his patrol was ambushed in Aliabad, he was shot in the face and neck by enemy insurgents, though he continued to try and instruct his fellow soldiers. He was later buried in Colombia, receiving the Bronze Star for his actions and sacrifice.
The documentary named after him mostly details the aftermath of his death, and the impact it had on his comrades.
“He was brave under fire and absolutely committed to the men. If you got sick he’d take your guard shift. If you were depressed he’d come to your hooch and play guitar. He took care of his men in every possible way,” wrote Sebastian Junger, the documentary’s co-director.
1. Raul “Roy” Perez Benavidez
Master Sergeant Benavidez was born in 1935 near Cuero, Texas, the child of a Mexican-American father and Yaqui Native American mother. His parents both died of tuberculosis, and he was primarily raised by his grandfather and uncle, along with his eight cousins.
Attending school until the age of 15, Benvidez was forced to drop out to help support his family. He enlisted in the Texas Army National Guard in 1952, and switched to active duty three years later. He was soon assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg.
After becoming a member of the elite 5th Special Forces Group, Benavidez was sent to Vietnam in 1965. He stepped on a landmine and was evacuated to the U.S., where doctors told him he would never walk again. However, he was determined to return to combat and serve his country; he trained at night by crawling with his elbows and chin, receiving support from fellow combat-disabled men. After over a year in the hospital, he walked out with his wife, and left for South Vietnam again in 1968.
Benavidez’s valorous actions on May 2, 1968 earned him the Medal of Honor. He leapt from a helicopter, armed only with a knife, to aid a 12-man Special Forces patrol that was surrounded by 1,000 North Vietnamese soldiers. He was shot seven times, covered in shrapnel, and had been stabbed in multiple places; his right lung was destroyed and his head was severely injured after being clubbed with a rifle butt. One bullet had exited his torso just beneath his heart. Even so, Benavidez saved the lives of at least eight of his comrades. During one exchange, he was stabbed with a bayonet, and he proceeded to yank it out and stab the offending soldier in return, before rejoining the battle.
“A doctor came and examined him but believed Benavidez was dead. The doctor was about to zip up the body bag when Benavidez spat in his face, alerting the doctor that he was alive,” reads this account.
After almost a year of recovery in the hospital, Benavidez was assigned to Fort Riley, Kansas, where he retired in 1976. A living witness from the “six hours in hell” battle submitted a 10-page report, and Benavidez was given his Medal of Honor on February 21, 1981.
President Reagan said, before reading the citation, “If the story of his heroism were a movie script, you would not believe it.”
For more stories of great veterans, read about the service of these eight female service members and their contributions to American history.