SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — A Puerto Rican retiree who served in some of the bloodiest battles of the Korean War received a belated appreciation today from the U.S. military, receiving one of the Army's highest service medals as part of an effort to find and honor surviving veterans of the conflict before it is too late.
Luis Ramos was presented with a Bronze Star for serving as a radioman, a highly vulnerable job that required him to be in the thick of combat, as the Puerto Rico-based 65th Infantry Regiment fought Chinese and North Korean troops from 1950 until the conflict came to a stalemate in 1953.
Ramos, now 89 and living with his wife in Coral Springs, was pleased with the recognition despite the delay, which is not that uncommon among veterans of the Korean War, in which more than 36,000 U.S. military personnel died.
"I feel very proud, and very glad," Ramos told The Associated Press after the ceremony at a monument to the 65th Infantry in San Juan. "This is a great moment for me."
The 65th Infantry, which during the Korean War was made up mostly of Puerto Ricans who had to contend with discrimination as well as enemy fire, received hundreds of medals for valor. One soldier, Pfc. Luis Fernando Garcia from the small island town of Utuado, received a posthumous Medal of Honor, the highest commendation of all.
Somehow Ramos, who also served in World War II and went on to have a career in the U.S. Postal Service, never received his Bronze Star or several other commendations.
One of his five children, Luis Ramos Jr., said his father felt he and other veterans of the Korean War had been forgotten. The son wrote the Defense Department and they offered to correct the oversight.
"It was a tough war. He was close to getting killed many times," said the younger Ramos, a software engineer who lives in St. Petersburg. "Then they come home and are completely ignored … He's not going to be around much more and it really bothered me."
There are apparently many other military veterans like Ramos who left the service without their due recognition. The U.S. has held ceremonies like the one Friday in San Juan in 32 states over the past two years, said Army Col. David J. Clark, director of the Defense Department's 60th Anniversary of the Korean War Commemoration Committee.
The ceremony was held not just to honor Ramos but also to celebrate the 65th Infantry, known as the Borinqueneers, and to help commemorate the Korean War. The U.S. began a three-year commemoration of the conflict in the summer of 2010, the 60th year anniversary of the war's start.
In part, Clark said, the missed medals reflected a desire among many people at the end of the conflict to move on. The U.S. was tired of war after having just made it through World War II, too. "Americans were just ready to turn the page at that point in time," he said.
There are an estimated 500,000 Korean War veterans still alive, with a median age of 80, and time is running out to find more who should receive overdue honors.
"A lot of these guys won't be around for the next commemoration," Clark said. "So as a nation, this is really our last chance to say thank you for what they did."