By Arturo 'Treto' Garza
Rio Grande Guardian
HARLINGEN — A while back some of the leaders of America’s Last Patrol Post 3 were criticized when they made public that at a San Antonio Veterans Affairs meeting, they were told that the VA would never construct a veterans hospital for those people from “down by the river.”
Many veterans understood that to mean that a VA hospital was not going to be constructed for the Rio Grande Valley, which is predominately Hispanic. Some veterans thought it was outright racism and were very angry that South Texas was not being considered given how patriotic it is.
Why bring this up now?
Well, this past month the ex-Secretary of the Veterans Affairs, Edward Darwinski, passed away (R.I.P.). Sec. Darwinski was appointed by President George Bush to head the newly created VA cabinet level post. The VA was given Cabinet level status by President Ronald Reagan. Darwinski was the first Secretary of Veterans Affairs.
In part, Darwinski was famous for one of his many off-the-cuff “quotes.” In one, he referred to Hispanic immigrants as “wetbacks.” This created uproar and he publicly apologized stating that it was a slip of the tongue. Imagine, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs using racial and derogatory labels to identify the patriotic Hispanic servicemen and ex-servicemen of South Texas.
I have to ask if this mindset has filtered on down throughout the decades the VA has been in existence.
Our present Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Lt. Gen. Eric Shinseki, is an Asian-American (Japanese) and a decorated war veteran with an impeccable service record. I wonder what his opinion of Darwinski would be if Darwinski had stated “Japs” instead of Hispanic immigrants.
Even before Darwinski became VA Secretary, local Valley veterans (mostly Hispanic) were advocating for better health services and a VA hospital for South Texas. Darwinski toured the South Texas area during his tenure. He came to Edinburg on March 11, 1991 (two decades ago) where he heard of the need for better health care services from local veterans. Yet, he did not think that a VA hospital was needed. (Can we jump the gun and state that he meant that he did not want to construct a veteran’s hospital for the “wetbacks”?)
Again, some Valley veterans feel that Darwinski’s mindset of “wetbacks” still exists today among the thousands of VA staff members, this despite the fact that the VA has presently enrolled many, many Winter Texans who are of non-Hispanic descent.
Many veterans in South Texas have grown real pessimistic of the possibilities of ever getting a VA hospital for the region. Some veterans believe we are losing our time and barking up the wrong tree.
One comment I have heard is that the VA is the government not the elected officials. IF we pass legislation for a veterans’ hospital for South Texas in Congress and the President signs it into law, VA’s officialdom will have the final say. And that will be a resounding NO!
Local veteran leaders have tried to maintain a neutral position on the issue. They do not want to make it a bi-partisan political fight and play one party over the other and play the blame game. For sure, they do not want to make this a racial issue. But as time goes by and the frustration sets in, many will surely start finding whom to blame.
Like many of the veteran and non-veteran citizens and residents of South Texas, I feel we indeed need a Veterans Affairs Full Medical Service Center and one that it is within reach. An expansion of the newly constructed Surgical and Specialty Center in Harlingen into a VA medical center is feasible and the most cost-effective.
It is common sense. And long overdue!
Arturo 'Treto' Garza served as a Marine in the Vietnam War and is a former co-chair of the Veteran’s Alliance of the Rio Grande Valley. Garza’s Veteran's Voice column appears exclusively in the Guardian. Garza lives in Harlingen, Texas.