PALM BAY, Fla. (AP) — Arcadio Santiago-Rodriguez spent 20 years quietly driving school buses in Brevard County and proudly flying the American flag on a tall pole in his front yard.
Rarely did he say anything about a remarkable military career that included multiple commendations and a promise from his commander that he would recommend him for a Medal of Honor for heroics in Korea.
It has taken a neighbor and his youngest son to encourage him to talk about his military service that spanned World War II, Korea and Vietnam, for which he earned him two Silver Stars, two Bronze Stars and the Purple Heart.
Santiago-Rodriguez, who turned 89 on Saturday, served with the Army’s 65th Infantry Regiment — nicknamed The Borinqueneers, a Puerto Rican regiment of the United States Army. Segregated from other American troops, the unit saw action in Germany during World War II and distinguished themselves in Korea.
“They told us we were not allowed on the front lines,” he said smiling. “We fought as much as the people on the front lines. Later we went to the front lines.”
Santiago-Rodriguez thinks he was discriminated against and was not awarded the Medal of Honor because he is Puerto Rican, the same attitude that kept his unit from joining the rest of the infantrymen on the front line.
World War II was the beginning of his combat duty that spanned decades. By 1951, Santiago-Rodriguez and the 65th Infantry were in the middle of the conflict in Korea.
Santiago-Rodriguez and his company were near Hongbok, Korea, when they got into a firefight with an enemy battalion. When his squad leader was killed, Private Santiago-Rodriguez assumed command of the squad. During a later assault to drive the enemy from a ridge, he volunteered to carry a wounded comrade to safety. In doing so, he encountered five enemy soldiers. He placed his wounded comrade on the ground, and opened fire on the enemy, killing four of them and capturing the fifth. He forced his prisoner to carry the wounded man to the battalion aid station, according to a citation for the medal.
He later visited the soldier and his grateful family in Guaynilla, Puerto Rico.
Santiago-Rodriguez said there was no explanation as to why he received the Silver Star instead of the Medal of Honor.
“My commander told me I will recommend you for the the Medal of Honor,” Santiago-Rodriguez said. “A few months later I got the Silver Star.”
Richard Santiago, 43, of Palm Bay said his father had spoken little about his service until recent years. And even then, the stories were slow in coming.
“I sit down and listen,” he said.
Santiago-Rodriguez’s neighbor, John Hardesty, lives in Dallas but spends at least one weekend a month in Palm Bay.
“I feel very fortunate he opened up to me,” Hardesty said. “One thing that bothers me, and I know our country has changed since then, is that his commander nominated him for the Medal of Honor and he didn’t get it.”
It is not known how many people have been nominated for the Medal of Honor.
The first Puerto Rican awarded the Medal of Honor was Marine Pfc. Fernando L. Garcia, who when an enemy grenade landed nearby, endangering another Marine and himself, chose to sacrifice himself, throwing himself on the grenade in the Korean War.
Four other Puerto Ricans have been awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest military decoration awarded by the United States, for heroics in Vietnam.
A total of 135 Medals of Honor were awarded for action in the Korean War.
Doug Sterner, military historian and curator for Military Times Hall of Valor, said Santiago-Rodriguez’ nomination may have been downgraded.
“It’s not uncommon that they downgrade,” Sterner said. “That happens with frequency.”
Sterner said that there is no list exists of people nominated for the Medal of Honor.
Hardesty, 61, said he met Santiago-Rodriguez about three years ago and thought his story should be told.
“He is just a great man who served his country long,” he said. “He’s a humble man.”
Santiago-Rodriguez received the Purple Heart for an incident in Korea. His gun jammed, and before he could take out his pistol, a Chinese fighter tried to take him prisoner and the two got into hand-to-hand combat. During the fight, the Chinese man bit him in the hand before Santiago-Rodriguez killed him with a knife.
After the Korean war, Santiago-Rodriguez served in Panama before being sent to Vietnam, where he served three tours and earned a second Silver Star.
Santiago-Rodriguez was leading a squad of 12 soldiers near Xuan Loc when they were ambushed, close to Thanksgiving 1969. He threw a grenade in the middle of enemy troops and opened fire with and M-16 rifle. When he ceased firing, 19 Viet Cong were dead. One U.S. soldier was killed and two wounded in the battle.
Santiago-Rodriguez served in North Africa, Germany, Korea, Vietnam and was stationed in Panama after returning from Korea. In 1969, he was named soldier of the year at Fort Bragg, N.C. and said he was surprised when he was chosen. “I was 45 and I thought I couldn’t compete with the young soldiers,” he said.
Assigned to Patrick Air Force Base in 1977, Santiago-Rodriguez retired about two years later, after 30 years of service in the Army, and settled in Brevard County.
Korea was the most difficult of his 30 years of service, though there were many difficult times, he said.
“I have it all up here,” he said pointing to his head. “I can’t forget it.”
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