Honored Puerto Rican Army Unit Made A Name For Itself In Korean War

The Army's 65th Infantry Regiment was a segregated military unit, begun in 1899 and composed of Puerto Ricans. President Barack Obama is signing a bill to honor the unit with one of the highest civilian honors, the Congressional Gold Medal.

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They fought for the U.S. and countered ethnic stereotypes in the process. Today, President Obama honored the Puerto Rican soldiers of the 65th Infantry Regiment. The president signed legislation recognizing the veterans for their military valor. They'll be awarded the Congressional Gold Medal - a distinction given to other segregated military units in the past, such as the Tuskegee Airmen and the Navajo code talkers.

NPR's Shereen Marisol Meraji was at the White House as the president signed the bill.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: Legend has it that members of the 65th decided on their way to Korea that they needed a nickname - and this one stuck.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: They're also known as the Borinqueneer - I got to get this right - Borinqueneers?

CROWD: Yes.

OBAMA: See, I practiced before I came out.

MERAJI: The Borinqueneers - the root is borinquen - the indigenous name for Puerto Rico. And the segregated unit plastered it on their helmets, their jeeps - anything and everything to show their Puerto Rican and American pride. The unit was formed just after the U.S. took control of the island in 1898, but it was in Korea where it made its name.

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OBAMA: Their courage made them legendary.

MERAJI: The Borinqueneers earned thousands of medals in Korea. They fought in the war's fiercest battles, and with very little training ahead of time, says 82-year-old Korean War vet Juan Negron. On top of that, they were made fun of for their mustaches, their accents, and they had to fight not only a war but the perception that they weren't good soldiers.

What was it like?

JUAN NEGRON: Like hell - bad. Forget about it - bad weather, bad enemy.

MERAJI: Negron came from Buffalo, New York with his son Edwin and daughter Vivian to watch President Obama sign the bill granting his unit the Congressional Gold Medal, a day he says he never thought would come.

So this is a good day for Puerto Rico?

CROWD: Yeah.

MERAJI: Just outside the White House gates, Puerto Ricans gathered to celebrate and serenade the Borinqueneers with traditional music from the island.

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MERAJI: The Borinqueneers will join Puerto Rican baseball legend Roberto Clemente as the only Latinos to be awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.

Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News.

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