THE MONITOR

(McAllen TX)

South Texas veterans' advocate gets overdue accolades
by Jacqueline Armendariz

LA VILLA – Decades ago, Technical Sgt. Placido Salazar said an overt act of racism against him almost kept his Bronze Star with Valor and the Purple Heart from being placed on his lapel. The story of how the Edcouch-born, La Villa-raised, retired Air Force serviceman fought for his country, and then had to fight for the honors he deserved, begins on Aug. 21, 1965, at Bien Hoa Air Force Base in Vietnam. Under more than 300 rounds of mortar fire, Salazar earned his Bronze Star when he rescued two injured and heavily sedated senior officers by placing them into the base’s bunker. He then left that safety to guard highly classified documents. He remembers one of the rescued officers was burned from the waist up, wrapped in gauze like a mummy. The episode ended with 29 U.S. personnel wounded and two killed. More than 40 U.S. and Vietnamese aircraft were also damaged. A short time later, the paperwork for Salazar’s Bronze Star was sent to his home base – Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Ariz. “When the paperwork got back to the home base, there was a Colonel that I didn’t know who he was and he didn’t know me, but he said, ‘This f— Mexican doesn’t deserve any decorations.’ So, he threw the paperwork away.” Salazar heard about the moment secondhand from a friend and fellow sergeant he had trained at the Arizona base. While he can’t remember his name, he describes the officer who threw his application away as a “Southern gentleman” and notes he violated military law when he failed to forward it. On Saturday, that part of his past took a backseat to what was proclaimed T. Placido Salazar Day in the small town of La Villa while the mayor, city administration and a county representative all honored him with proclamations and resolutions. He was also given the key to the city while many fellow Vietnam veterans looked on. VETERANS’ ADVOCACY La Villa Mayor Hector Elizondo noted about 130 men and women from the town have served, including Army Staff Sgt. Estevan Altamirano, of Edcouch, a solider whose family was also recognized at the ceremony. He died in Iraq in 2011. For a small community of our size, we have had a great number of young men and women who have served proudly and with great distinction.” The town’s main drag – Mike Chapa Drive – is named after a soldier killed in the Korean War, he said, adding that Mexican-Americans are an ethnic group highly decorated for their military service. “That speaks volumes for the Mexican-Americans,” he said. “People who don’t want to reform the immigration bill, they’re just looking at one side. Look at the contribution that the Mexican -Americans have done for this country, especially the military.” Salazar, who is turning 75 years old next week, said he is producing and directing a documentary about

veterans “struggling for justice” titled American GI Forum Heroes. The veterans’ rights advocate is straightforward and proud to be a Mexican-American from the Rio Grande Valley. “It’s time that they start earning their money,” he said of politicians he believes make empty promises to bring South Texas a veterans hospital only to earn votes. Whenever he gets the chance, he notes Mexican-Americans are a highly decorated group of veterans. On Saturday, tears welled in his eyes twice as he talked about the past: when he recalled how soldiers were treated after Vietnam; and when he recalled the moment he realized he had earned a Purple Heart. “This is a far cry from how we were received in 1965, but that’s a story for another time,” Salazar said, recalling American soldiers were slapped, spit on and called “baby killers.” There is irony in the fact that he has spent so much of his time fighting on behalf of other veterans, but he eventually took the time to advocate for himself at the prodding of his son in the late 1990s, saying he had let his Mexican-American pride get in the way after an initial inquiry. By then, Salazar had still not received his Bronze Star. When he first asked about it in the late 1960s, after being transferred to the Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio, the honor was downgraded to a commendation medal he refused to accept. “So, (the officer) said, ‘I have to pin it on you and then you can do whatever you want with it.’ I said, ‘Well, I’ll tell you what. I’ll tell you what to do with it.’ He wanted to court -martial me for being disrespectful and I guess he should’ve.” Eventually, the Bronze Star was unceremoniously mailed to him and, later, he was awarded both decorations in an official ceremony at the air base in San Antonio in February. But, it wasn’t until 2009, that a chance discovery during a spinal surgery led to earning his Purple Heart. While under anesthesia, he said, he flashed back to that night in Vietnam, realizing his fall while under fire had led to a painful injury that, for years, had made it feel as if he had marbles in his neck. The doctor said the damage was consistent with such a fall. Today, he uses crutches for assistance and has a titanium plate in his neck as well as several fractured vertebrae. At one time, he had lung tumors he believes are linked to the Agent Orange herbicide the government used in Vietnam. In the past, doctors had declined to do surgery on Salazar, saying a sliver of bone had punctured his spinal cord and it would be too dangerous. HE RAISES HELL’ On Saturday, in the La Villa City Hall most everyone at the ceremony honoring his service knew Salazar, making for an emotional event. In typical fashion, he reminded the audience to go out and vote and educate youths about it, too. “We must remember the freedom of our nation is not free,” Salazar said. And again, he reminded the public to thank a veteran at every opportunity. “It’s never a war of our choosing. Please remember that,” Salazar said. All the while, Salazar’s wife of 57 years proudly look ed on. The couple, who married at age 17 and have six kids, live outside of San Antonio. But, they’re often in the Valley connecting with friends and family and pushing for more resources for veterans. “He raises hell for the guys,” Maria Salazar, 74, said. “He’s always been like that.”

Jacqueline Armendariz covers law enforcement and courts for The Monitor. She can be reached at jarmendariz@themonitor.com and (956) 683-4434 or on Twitter, @jarmendariz.

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful