Iraq War Hits Close to Home in Puerto Rico Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, but they lack some of the rights of citizenship, including the right to vote for president. Yet they have served -- and died -- in the military for generations. Since 2003, dozens of Puerto Ricans have been killed in Iraq.
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Iraq War Hits Close to Home in Puerto Rico

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Iraq War Hits Close to Home in Puerto Rico

Iraq War Hits Close to Home in Puerto Rico

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm John Ydstie.

The U.S. military reported today that 100 service members have been killed in Iraq this month, making October the fourth deadliest month since the U.S.-led invasion in March of 2003. The 100th death was a Marine who died in combat yesterday in Anbar Province west of Baghdad. News of the grim milestone comes eight days before congressional elections in which Iraq has become a major issue. Two thousand eight hundred and thirteen American troops have now been killed in Iraq, and polls among potential voters show a growing number want to see a drawdown in U.S. forces.

MONTAGNE: One of those on the U.S. fatality list is Jesus Montalvo of Puerto Rico. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, but they lack some of the rights of citizenship. They can't vote for president, yet they have served and died in the military for generations. Since 2003, at least two dozen Puerto Ricans, and by some reports twice as many, have been killed in Iraq.

NPR's Mandalit del Barco visited some of their families in their hometowns.

(Soundbite of rain)

MANDALIT DEL BARCO: The tropical thunderstorm is coming down hard on the city of Mayaguez. This is where Jesus Montalvo lived before he was sent off to Baghdad. He was killed just a week ago.

Mr. LEO MONTALVO (Brother of Jesus Montalvo): (Through translator) It's as though Puerto Rico were crying, Leo Montalvo says, as he looks out the window at the downpour. He and some of the 12 other brothers and sisters are gathered at the house, grieving with the word that their 46-year-old brother was gunned down in combat just four days before his mission was to end.

(Soundbite of rain)

Mr. MONTALVO: (Speaking Spanish)

DEL BARCO: The Puerto Rican skies are protesting, Montalvo says as the thunder roars. He remembers how his brother used to phone him from Iraq, asking the family to sing him plenas, Puerto Rican ballads. This Christmas, their brother won't be here to accompany them on the pandereta drum and the cuatro guitar. But they'll still tell stories about he nicknamed himself Randall after a character on the old TV show Combat. And they talk about how Montalvo was a police officer in Mayaguez many years ago before he started his career in the Army.

Mr. MONTALVO: He always willing to serve and protect, you know. The armed forces, the militia - it was in his blood. He knew what the risk was.

DEL BARCO: Segismundo Lopez Montalvo who was two years younger than his uncle Jesus. They grew up as brothers. Just last month, Lopez says Montalvo came to him in a dream, to say goodbye.

Mr. SEGISMUNDO LOPEZ MONTALVO (Nephew of Jesus Montalvo): He was the all-American boy, you know. He believed in the United States. He believes in the armed forces. You know, I disagree with the reasons why they made this war, you know. But one thing is for sure - I really miss him, you know. He was my hero. I have a hole in my heart. That's the only way I can describe it.

DEL BARCO: Among the mementos on display in the living room is a photo of Staff Sgt. Montalvo in uniform playing with an Iraqi child. His death leaves his own four children without a father.

The same for another family here in Mayaguez, the West Coast's biggest port and fishing city. Sgt. Miguel Angel Ramos was killed when a missile hit his base in Baghdad a year and a half ago.

Mr. OMAR RAMOS (Son of Miguel Angel): He's saying that he was scared when he heard the bombs and the explosion of the bazooka - missiles.

DEL BARCO: Omar Ramos is nine years old. His brother Miguel is 13, and Sebastian just six.

Mr. MIGUEL RAMOS (Son of Miguel Angel): I feel lonely without my father. He played with us, he see movies with us, he teach us how to speak in English.

DEL BARCO: Is there somebody that you rely on to be sort of like a father to you now?

Mr. M. RAMOS: Well, my grandfather. My uncles.

DEL BARCO: I imagine it's not the same though.

Mr. M. RAMOS: Yes, my father is different, that's him - not there.

Mr. SEBASTIAN RAMOS (Son of Miguel Angel): I love my dad.

DEL BARCO: You loved your Dad.

Puerto Rican soldiers have been fighting in the U.S. armed forces since at least World War I, when the island became a U.S. territory and its residents became citizens. All together, more than 150,000 served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. But as Maria Munoz notes, they're from a territory, not a state, and they can't send a voting member to Congress or vote for commander in chief.

Ms. MARIA MUNOZ (Sister of Pedro Munoz): (Through translator) It's ironic, you know. We can't decide who will be president, but the U.S. offers for us to go to war. They see soldiers as just workers, like when we're shipped off to pick tomatoes. It's the same.

DEL BARCO: Munoz is sitting with her mother and brother at their home in Quebradillas, on the north coast of the island. They're remembering their brother Pedro Munoz, an Army sergeant, who was killed last year during a secret mission, and what a great athlete he was, a paratrooper who grew up wanting to be a soldier like his father was during the Korean War. Munoz says her brother volunteered for the army because he wanted to be able to support his family in a way he couldn't here Puerto Rico, where people earn about half what they earn in the poorest U.S. state.

Ms. MUNOZ: (Through translator) Remember, we're in an economic crisis here, and a lot of young people see the army as a way of getting money. I'll enlist. I'll help my wife, my mother, you know. But after, the price they pay, it's with their lives.

DEL BARCO: Legend has it that Quebradillas was once a hideout for pirates of the Caribbean. Nowadays, the town of 5,000 people is known for having lost three of its native sons - including Pedro Munoz - to the war in Iraq.

Mayor HERIBERTO VELEZ (Quebradillas, Puerto Rico): (Spanish spoken)

DEL BARCO: Mayor Heriberto Velez says in a town so small, three deaths means a lot.

Mayor VELEZ: (Through translator) We're afraid because so many from Quebradillas are in the Army, and so many don't return. In this small town, everyone is like family, so that affect us all. It's a shared pain.

(Soundbite of frogs croaking)

DEL BARCO: Hear in the Cacao neighborhood of Quebradillas, you can hear the tiny coqui frogs croaking at night. The mayor renamed the street I'm standing on after Alexis Roman Cruz this year, after he was killed in Iraq. His parents, Carmelo Roman de Jesus and Gloria Cruz, say he was born on this street.

Mr. CARMELO ROMAN de JESUS CRUZ (Father of Alexis Roman Cruz): (Spanish spoken)

DEL BARCO: Roman arrived in Iraq less than a month before he was killed, say his parents. In their living room, they have a shrine to him, a glass cabinet with his baby shoes, his baby teeth, his toy cars, his medals. Roman de Jesus says he's still upset with military recruiters who promised his son $20,000 to enlist.

Mr. CRUZ: (Spanish spoken)

DEL BARCO: They bought his life, says Roman de Jesus whose eyes are red from tears. He says he stares at the shrine everyday and sobs, remembering how he and his son used to go fishing and play music together.

Mr. CRUZ: I lost my son and I feel like nothing, like nobody. I lost the best man in the world, my son, and I blame the United States for that.

(Soundbite of music)

DEL BARCO: During the annual festival in Quebradillas, Roman de Jesus looks out at the audience as he sings with his trio on stage. But he can no longer see his number one fan cheering him on. He says music doesn't hold the same joy it once did. His latest song is a sad lament, dedicated to Alexis Roman Cruz and to his son's childhood friend, William Lopez Feliciano, and to all the other sons and daughters who've been killed in Iraq.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. CRUZ: (Singing in Spanish)

DEL BARCO: Other mothers and fathers are suffering, he sings - all of Puerto Rico, too. And he warns them, don't let our children die in Iraq.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, San Juan, Puerto Rico.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: You can see some of the faces of some of those Puerto Rican troops who gave their lives in Iraq and the families they left behind at

(Soundbite of music)


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