Korean War veteran, 86, receives highest civilian honor
By LEON COOK | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 6, 2016
An 86-year-old Korean War veteran received the Congressional Gold Medal during a bedside ceremony last month at Fort Sam Houston’s San Antonio Military Medical Center.
“Not many people receive this medal; I feel very proud,” Staff Sgt. Jose Diaz-Rivas said as he accepted the nation’s highest civilian award, according to an Army statement.
He served with the 65th Infantry Regiment “Borinqueneers,” a Puerto Rico-based Army unit that distinguished itself during the Korean War, fighting in nine of 10 campaigns during the conflict. Soldiers assigned to the regiment received 2,771 Purple Hearts, 606 Bronze Stars, 256 Silver Stars, 10 Distinguished Service Crosses and a Medal of Honor for their heroism in Korea, the statement said.
The entire unit received the honor on April 13 in Washington D.C., but failing health prevented Diaz-Rivas from attending the ceremony. His family and friends thought a medal in the mail wouldn’t be good enough, though, and Col. Jeffrey Johnson, commander of Brooke Army Medical Center, agreed to present the award in person.
“We honor you and thank you for your sacrifice,” Johnson said as he presented the medal, the statement said.
Diaz-Rivas, who enlisted at age 16, called the 65th Infantry Regiment a “fierce” group and recalled how they went into battle singing their regimental song. From his hospital bed, he sang the song he learned 65 years and a lifetime ago: “Arriba muchachos vamos a zarpar; a lejanas tierras vamos a pelear.” (Get up boys, we are shipping out; to faraway lands we must go and fight.)
“The Americans would say, those Puerto Ricans are crazy. They are going to fight and they are singing; they are happy,” he said, laughing. “They didn’t understand that singing gave us courage.”
For his Korean War service, Diaz-Rivas received a Combat Infantryman Badge and a Korean Service Medal with two bronze stars. He later joined the Air Force and fought in the Vietnam War, receiving an Air Force Commendation Medal after rescuing and transporting wounded soldiers behind enemy lines. He retired from the military in 1971 after 21 years of service.
“My father is very proud of his medal,” daughter Ivonne Diaz-Navedo said in the statement. “But we are proud of all of his contributions. It’s a complete life he’s lived.”