President Barack Obama signed a bill Tuesday awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to the 65th Infantry Regiment, a unit of soldiers largely from Puerto Rico known as Los Borinqueneers.
Celestino Cordova and Joe Picard, two veterans from Connecticut, were among dozens of Borinqueneers from all over the country who traveled to Washington, D.C. for the bill signing.
"It was a hugely joyous and powerfully moving moment for all of us," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal.
Blumenthal and Sen. Chris Murphy, among others, have advocated for the past year for legislative approval of the gold medal for the unit. The measure was approved last month by the U.S. House and the Senate.
Blumenthal said Obama met with the veterans privately a few minutes before the bill signing ceremony in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building Auditorium. Obama greeted the veterans in Spanish with, "Mucho gusto" and "Felicidades."
The president thanked the Borinqueneers for their service and handed each a presidential coin.
During the ceremony, Blumenthal said he stood on stage with several of the Borinqueneers while the president signed the bill into law.
"I would say the overriding mood was joy, pride and celebration. A lot of pride. They waited a long time for this recognition and they deserve it," Blumenthal said. "They have not even a tinge of resentment about their serving in a segregated unit. They are just proud to have served their country."
The Borinqueneers now join the Tuskegee Airmen, the Navajo Code Talkers and other distinguished military units who have received the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation's highest civilian honor.
"I applaud Congress for awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to veterans in the 65th Infantry who deserve to be recognized for your sacrifices before it is too late," said Governor Dannel P. Malloy. "Connecticut is proud to be home to many surviving members and their families and we continue to be grateful for their courageous contributions to the protection of the citizens of our nation and the freedom of people around the world."
The regiment's nickname, Los Borinqueneers, came from the indigenous word "Borinquen."
The unit fought in World War I and World War II, but is especially known for its role in the Korean War, where the unit fought in some notable battles, including the Battle of Chosin Reservoir.
According to the Department of Defense, the soldiers also launched the last recorded, battalion-sized bayonet assault, overrunning the Chinese south of Seoul on Feb. 2, 1951.
Despite a presidential order in 1948 abolishing racial segregation in the military, Los Borinqueneers was a segregated unit through most of the Korean War.
By the end of the conflict, the unit had earned 10 Distinguished Service Crosses, about 250 Silver Stars, more than 600 Bronze Stars and nearly 3,000 Purple Hearts. The unit was the last segregated military unit to be deactivated.
Now that the bill has been signed into law, officials at the U.S. Mint will discuss potential designs for the medal with bill sponsors and representatives of the honorees. The U.S. Secretary of the Treasury chooses a design from several different sketches.
The approved design is sculptured and the medal is struck at the Philadelphia Mint. The Mint then notifies the White House and arrangements are made for a formal presentation by the president, which usually takes place in Washington, D.C.
The original medal remains in the custody of the Smithsonian Institution, but other locations associated with the 65th Infantry Regiment can petition to receive the medal on loan for display.