San Juan, Jul 27 (EFE).- The “Guitars for Vets” initiative, a non-governmental organization (NGO), the purpose of which is to share the healing power of music with ex-combatants, is proving to be a welcome help to Puerto Rican veterans, many of whom were subjected to racism while serving in the US Army and are still feeling its effects today, in contrast to most veterans living in the United States.
“I always (suffered) discrimination, for not speaking English – they treated me badly,” 68-year-old Javier Normandia, who fought in the first Gulf War (1990-1991), told EFE.
He said that, in addition, when he returned from overseas he found himself having to deal with insomnia and depression, but thanks to Guitars for Vets he learned to play the guitar and now can manage to distract himself from his disturbing memories of that period in his life.
“For us, preventing suicide and (providing) mental health (aid) is very important. That’s what we’re promoting through music,” said salsa singer Carlos Nevarez, the ambassador for Guitars for Vets, which for the first time this month organized a musical show at the Castillo de San Cristobal in San Juan.
Currently, 3.1 percent (or 83,641 people) of the civilian population 18 or older in Puerto Rico are veterans, according to the US Census Bureau’s State Data Center.
At age 44, Guitars for Vets member Frankie Perez said that the “Tricare” medical plan providing benefits to US veterans and their families does not apply to Marines residing in Puerto Rico itself.
The island has been a US territory since 1898 and, in 1952, it was established as a Commonwealth. Thus, its residents have US citizenship and serve in the US military, but they do not have the same full spectrum of rights as in the other US states.
“This lack of respect and this theft of our acquired rights and benefits can’t be allowed to go on,” Perez, who fought in Iraq and attempted suicide in 2008, told EFE.
According to Guitars for Vets, more than one million US veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and, on average, 20 vets commit suicide each day.
The organization, which for the past 12 years has been active in every US state, but which became established in Puerto Rico just three years ago, provides 10-week guitar classes to war veterans and uses music as therapy.
“The student must learn at least six chords, the parts of the guitar, (how to) tune the instrument – and they’re temporarily provided with an instrument so they can practice. And, at the end of the course, they’re given a guitar” of their own, says Nevarez.
With the music at the event playing in the background, 81-year-old Reymond Mira told EFE that he was able to transform the racism he suffered in the US Navy into “something positive.”
“People told me: ‘You can’t do such and such a thing because of your (skin) color, because of your ethnic group.’ I became a pilot, an engineer and a stockbroker. I looked in the mirror and thought ‘I’m the captain of my destiny,'” he said of his oftentimes quixotic struggle.
Meanwhile, veteran Maribel Medina, from the northern Puerto Rican town of Canovanas, said that her experience as a Puerto Rican woman in the US Army was complicated because she had to constantly prove that she was capable of doing the same job as her white, male fellow soldiers.
“As women, we had to (prove) that we could do the same work that men do and I went to Iraq,” Medina said, adding that she was deployed in the wartorn Middle Eastern nation for 16 months.
Racism – whether overt or covert – within the US Army has been an ongoing fact, despite the 1948 order issued by then-President Harry S. Truman forbidding any discrimination based on race or skin color.
More than 1,225 Puerto Ricans died while serving in the US military in World War I, World War II, Vietnam, Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan and in the Persian Gulf, according to data provided by the US Defense Department.
The US Army’s 65th Infantry Regiment, known as the “Borinqueneers,” from the Taino Indian name for Puerto Rico (Boriquen), included the 61,000 Puerto Ricans who fought in the 1950-1953 Korean War, during which 732 of them lost their lives.