Minority numbers in the military grow, but minority vets face a complex set of issues

Franco Acerbal, a Filipino WWII veteran (left), and Lee Gutierrez, California’s Deputy Secretary for Minority Veterans’ Affairs (right).
Franco Acerbal, a Filipino WWII veteran (left), and Lee Gutierrez, California’s Deputy Secretary for Minority Veterans’ Affairs (right).
Ruxanda Guidi/KPCC

Listen to story

Download this story 1.0MB

Many veterans face obstacles when they return home from conflict zones. Immigrant and Latino vets have to navigate another level of complexity.

East L.A. native Ruben Treviso came back from the Vietnam War in 1971 “all messed up,” he says. But his mental health was a top priority for his Veterans Administration doctors, and he credits them for his recovery.
Today, not all veterans get medical help as soon as they need it. And minority veterans, especially, require a lot of help redeeming and navigating their educational benefits. Treviso says Latinos like him are a growing force in the military.

“Twenty to 30 percent of all the Hispanic Medal of Honor recipients were immigrants… A lot of them came from Mexico. They’re like newborn Christians! Their fervent love for this country is unbelievable,” Treviso said.

But despite their service, many of those veterans feel slighted — especially amid the economic recession, budget cuts, and long-running wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Lee Gutierrez, the state's deputy secretary for minority veteran’s affairs, said his department is doing their best.

“We want to stay focused on the issues that confront veterans right now — unemployment, getting access to services, health care and housing,” Gutierrez said.

California appointed Gutierrez its deputy secretary for minority veteran’s affairs only five months ago. He’s gearing up for a massive troop return by the end of the year. Many of those men and women are heading to Southern California, home to one of the largest concentrations of veterans in the country.

Gutierrez is also making the rounds to listen to constituents. They include older veterans, like 88 year-old Franco Acerbal. He’s one of 400,000 Filipinos who fought for the Americans during World War II. After 60 years, he is a naturalized U.S. citizen, but he does not yet receive a pension.

“The US government saved billions of dollars for not granting us these benefits for the last 60 years," Acerbal said. "Why can’t they just give us $1,000 a month or $12,000 a year, so that we will not be begging like for welfare? And we deserve it!”

About 12,000 Filipino vets live in the Philippines and another 3,000 in the United States. Keeping faith with these much older veterans, Acerbal says, would send a message to all future minority veterans that this country appreciates their service.