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OPINION

The votes are in: Puerto Rico’s vets deserve equality

By JOSÉ A. CABRERA | Special to Stars and Stripes | Published: November 10, 2020

Although Puerto Rico’s service members have defended our freedoms overseas, approximately 90,000 veterans living in Puerto Rico are denied the right to vote for their commander in chief and to access federal programs on an equal basis solely because they are residents of a U.S. territory. This should change now that the people of Puerto Rico have voted for immediate statehood.

Puerto Rico has been a U.S. territory since 1898. Puerto Ricans, who have been U.S. citizens since 1917, have developed a proud and storied tradition of military service. Puerto Rico’s residents have fought in all of our nation’s wars since 1917, including World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Over 1,200 Puerto Ricans have died while serving, and nine earned the Medal of Honor for conspicuous acts of gallantry and intrepidity. The current Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is also Puerto Rican.

Furthermore, Puerto Rico has one of the highest military participation rates in the nation, with Puerto Ricans enlisting at double the rate of mainland residents. Over 25,000 Puerto Ricans currently serve on active duty and another 13,000 serve in the reserve component. This measure of loyalty to the United States is even more notable when considering that our armed forces are an all-volunteer force, the military-civilian divide has widened, and the service branches have been at war for nearly 20 years.

Despite the sacrifices of its finest, Puerto Rico’s military community is disenfranchised. Residents of Puerto Rico cannot elect senators and representatives to the Congress that makes rules and regulations respecting territories, and cannot elect the president of the United States that executes those laws and also serves as commander in chief of the armed forces.

I know what it feels like to have no voice. During the 2016 election, I was stationed in Hawaii as a soldier in the 25th Infantry Division. While my battle buddies were able to have a say in our election process, I was subjected to federal taxation without representation and relegated to silence on the issue of who should be my commander in chief. It was one thing to have read about the disenfranchisement of the Puerto Rican service member as a civilian; it was another to experience it while wearing the American flag on my shoulder.

Moreover, disenfranchisement at the legislative and executive levels also implies that the residents of Puerto Rico have no say in the nomination and confirmation process of Supreme Court justices that have previously validated discrimination against Puerto Rico. As a result, Puerto Rico’s service members and veterans, many of whom later in life earn low incomes, face unemployment, or live with disability, are treated differently in the application of federal programs in Puerto Rico.

For example, Puerto Rico-based veterans do not receive full Medicare benefits even though they have contributed shares equal to those of veterans on the mainland. Our veterans cannot access Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program funds, which 1.3 million mainland veterans use, but rather the inferior Nutrition Assistance Program that is assigned to Puerto Rico. Puerto Rican veterans are also ineligible to receive Supplemental Security Income if they are over 65 years of age, blind or disabled.

That Puerto Rico has been mired in a 14-year economic depression, a result of poor local governance and policies implemented because of Puerto Rico’s territorial status, has further aggravated the plight of Puerto Rico’s military community. In turn, Puerto Rico’s veterans have voted with a plane ticket, as tens of thousands have moved stateside to attain the opportunities and rights inherent to statehood.

In sum, Puerto Ricans have fought and died overseas to defend our freedoms, only to have their rights denied at home. They also cannot receive the full slate of federal benefits they have more than earned as defenders of our American way of life. The second-class treatment of Puerto Rico’s military community is shameful and wrong.

However, the vote that took place on Nov. 3 could rectify that injustice. For the first time, voters were asked to say “yes” or “no” on whether Puerto Rico should be admitted immediately as a state. A 52% majority said yes, producing the strongest mandate of the 2020 Puerto Rican elections cycle.

Statehood would permanently enfranchise Puerto Rico’s military community and accord them equal treatment under the law. Having spoken, Congress should respect the people’s will and honor the sacrifices of Puerto Rico’s veterans by promptly admitting Puerto Rico as a state.

Attorney José A. Cabrera is co-chair of the Puerto Rico Young Republican Federation and a former JAG noncommissioned officer in the U.S. Army.