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American Veterans Who Were Immigrants: A Salute

by Jessica Campbell

This Veterans Day, we pay tribute to a special group of American service members: immigrants. They came to the United States in search of freedom, jobs, or simply a better life. Some were just children when their families crossed mountains and deserts and oceans, escaping poverty or war or discrimination. Others made the journey alone, venturing forth solo into a great unknown in order to help their loved ones back home. However they got here, for whatever reason, they shared a love for their new country and a willingness to risk their lives to protect it.

Here are the stories of immigrants who proudly served in the U.S. military, as told in 27 unique obituaries.

Yoe M. Aneiros

U.S. Army Specialist, KIA in Iraq

Born in Cuba, Sept. 7, 1984 – Died in Baghdad, Iraq, Sept. 7, 2004

Spc. Aneiros and his mother came to the United States “seeking a better life.” Hoping to become a doctor, Aneiros of Newark, New Jersey, enlisted in the Army in September 2002 and “was counting on the military to help pay the way” through medical school. He died in Baghdad suburb Sadr City when enemy troops attacked his patrol vehicle with rocket-propelled grenades.

Joe Tena Barrales

Lt. Commander, U.S. Navy

Born Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, March 19, 1941 Died Fredericksburg, Virginia, USA, Sept. 28, 2013

Born in poverty, Barrales came to the U.S. at age eight and was enrolled in a kindergarten class because he spoke no English. The first in his family to graduate high school, at 18 Barrales “proudly took steps to become an American citizen.” He then worked hard to pay his way through the University of Arizona, eventually earning two bachelor’s degrees and a master’s. Barrales also served in the U.S. Navy for 25 years as an intelligence specialist and linguist (he spoke five languages), and retired from the Navy Reserve as a Lt. Commander. According to his obituary, “The only time his wife saw him weep was at a Memorial Day Church Service when the Navy hymn was played.”

Jonny Behdjet

U.S. Army, Korean War Veteran

Born Romania, Dec. 22, 1928 Died Clayton, California, USA, March 23, 2017

His early life is “a lesson in world history.” Behdjet was born in Romania and escaped to Israel during World War II. He then immigrated to the U.S. and served in the Army during the Korean conflict. After the war, thanks to the G.I. Bill, he was able to train in electronics and begin a career as a salesman and consultant. “Decent and kind, he connected with people all over the world, but especially in Clayton.”

Heinz W. Beyer

U.S. Army

Born Berlin, Germany, Nov. 1, 1925 – Died Owen, Wisconsin, USA, June 28, 2017

In 1929 Beyer immigrated with his family to the United States, where they settled in Marshfield, Wisconsin. Beyer worked on the family farm before enlisting in the U.S. Army. He served two years and “received his citizenship papers on March 12, 1956,” shortly after his discharge.

Gidelina Pineda

Army National Guard, Iraq War Veteran

Born in the Dominican Republic, c. 1984 – Died in Auburndale, Massachusetts, USA, Feb. 3, 2013

Born in the Dominican Republic, Pineda immigrated to Boston with her family. She enlisted in the Massachusetts Army National Guard, deploying to Iraq in 2005 in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Pineda “was a valued member of the Department of Veterans’ Services Statewide Housing and Advocacy for Reintegration and Prevention (SHARP) Team” and “was deeply dedicated to serving Veterans, especially homeless Veterans.” Pineda had been homeless herself, suffering from PTSD after her six years of service and honorable discharge.

Jorgen Bodker

Merchant Marine, World War II Veteran

Born in Bigum, Denmark, March 1, 1927 – Died in Otto, North Carolina, USA, Jan. 30, 2017

Bodker immigrated to Detroit, Michigan in the early 1930s. He left school early to join the Merchant Marine, serving in the Pacific Theater during World War II and “bravely defending his adopted county in Okinawa.”

James J. Boyle

U.S. Army, World War II Veteran

Born in Clydebank, Scotland, Sept. 30, 1918 – Died in Kingston, Pennsylvania, USA, July 27, 2017

Born in Scotland and raised in Donegal, Ireland, Boyle immigrated to Brooklyn, New York, where he graduated from Alexander Hamilton High School. He served in the U.S. Army during World War II as “a commissioned officer of the rank of first lieutenant in the 37th Infantry Division.” For his service he received “two Purple Heart medals and the Bronze Star medal.”

Kevin G. Waruinge

Lance Cpl., U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, Iraq War Veteran, KIA in Iraq

Born in Kenya, c. 1983 – Died in Haditha, Iraq, Aug. 3, 2005

“Waruinge was a teenager living in his native Kenya when his family won a lottery to receive a visa to the United States and a chance for a new life. Once here, he wanted to give back.” Waruinge graduated high school in 2001 and joined the Marine Corps Reserve that same year. In 2003, he became a U.S. citizen. “He was an African boy who was all-American.”

Rocco L. Calabrese

U.S. Army Veteran

Born in Pontelandolfo, Italy, Oct. 23, 1934 – Died in Southington, Connecticut, USA, June 23, 2017

At age 11, Calabrese immigrated from Italy to “The Golden Land” of America. He remembered seeing the Statue of Liberty as his ship arrived in New York, an image that “forever remained with him.” He followed in his father’s footsteps by enlisting in the U.S. Army and “proudly serving his country” before his honorable discharge in 1957.

Royal Camero

U.S. Army, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Born in Bolinao, Pangasinan, Philippines, Feb. 6, 1945 – Died in Anchorage, Alaska, USA, Jan. 30, 2017

Born in a U.S. Army MASH unit in the Philippines, Camero was “named after the American military doctor who delivered him.” He immigrated to the United States in 1971 as a professional engineer and decided to join the U.S. Army. He served as an Army Engineer in Alaska from 1971-74. After he was honorably discharged, “he continued to work as a Civil/Structural Engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Alaska District.”

Enrico “Cheech” Cecilia

U.S. Army, World War II Veteran

Born in Morolo, Italy, Feb. 5, 1922 – Died in Whitesboro, New York, USA, Feb. 18, 2017

“A proud veteran of the United States Army, he honorably served his country from 1942-1946 during World War II as a Technical Sergeant stationed in the Pacific Theater of Operations.”

Raúl Chávez

U.S. Navy, World War II Veteran

Born Chihuahua, Mexico, Feb. 14, 1926 – Died Houston, Texas, Nov. 25, 2012

Chávez immigrated to the U.S. with his family, settling in Los Angeles, California, “to seek refuge from the turbulence that followed the Mexican Revolution.” During World War II, Chávez joined the U.S. Navy, serving as a flight engineer and turret aerial gunner on PBM5 flying boat patrol bombers. Chávez and his crewmates “participated in the Okinawa campaign, preparations for the invasion of the Japanese mainland, and reconnaissance over-flights of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”

Paul Dersain

U.S. Army, Korean War Veteran

Born Marseilles, France, c. 1927 – Died Worcester, Massachusetts, USA, June 18, 2017

Dersain served in the French Army during World War II before immigrating to the United States in 1949. After becoming a U.S. citizen, “he proudly served his country in the U.S. Army during the Korean War.” “Dedicated to the U.S. Army,” Dersain worked for nearly three decades as a clothing designer at the U.S. Army Natick Laboratories.

Magdaleno “Leno” Díaz

World War II Veteran

Born Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico, May 6, 1919 – Died Seal Beach, California, USA, Feb. 10, 2015

Díaz crossed into the United States at an early age with his family of 10 siblings. The family settled in Los Angeles, living in the Boyle Heights and Maravilla neighborhoods. Díaz became a naturalized citizen and served in World War II from 1942-45 as an airplane mechanic in the China-Burma-India Theater, “for which he received several commendations.” Díaz entered “El Otro Barrio” (as he liked to call it) on Feb. 10, 2015.

Andreas Dionyssiou

U.S. Army, Korean War Veteran

Born Sysklipos, Cyprus, Nov. 26, 1928 Died Toledo, Ohio, USA, July 20, 2017

In the late 1940s, Dionyssiou left his homeland of Cyprus and immigrated to the United States. He was “drafted into the Korean War serving his country bravely with an honorable discharge as Sergeant in the United States Army.” After the Army, Dionyssiou joined his uncles, Rudy and Gus and his brother Harry to create Toledo institution, Rudy’s Hot Dog. “As patriarch of the family, Andy was instrumental in the sponsorship of many family members and friends to the United States … Andy truly believed that no matter how distant family should stick together.”

Charles F. Fernandez

U.S. Navy, World War II Veteran

Born San Luis Potosi, Mexico, 1922 Died Plover, Wisconsin, USA, Nov. 15, 2015

Fernandez grew up in Chicago after immigrating to the U.S. with his family at age 4. After serving in the Navy during World War II, Fernandez worked as an automotive technician until receiving the opportunity to teach. The rest of his career he would devote to education, serving as a director for Migrant Schools for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. A “role model for many in the Hispanic community,” in his retirement “he enjoyed working primarily with at-risk and emotionally disturbed youth at the Alternative High School in Stevens Point, which was renamed after him and is now called The Charles F. Fernandez Center for Alternative Learning.”

Christopher Wong Won

U.S. Air Force Veteran

Born Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, May 29, 1964 – Died Miami, Florida, USA, July 13, 2017

Christopher Wong Won, aka Fresh Kid Ice, was one of the co-founders of the Miami-based rap group 2 Live Crew. Won spent his early years in Trinidad and Tobago before immigrating to Brooklyn, New York, with his family at age 12. After graduating high school in 1982, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and served four years based in California. During this time he met David Hobbs, aka DJ Mr. Mixx, and Yuri Vielot, aka Amazing Vee. The three formed 2 Live Crew and released their debut single, “Revelation,” in 1985. When the song proved popular in Florida, the group relocated to Miami.

Alfred J. Hernandez Sr.

U.S. Army, World War II Veteran

Born in Mexico City, D.F., Mexico, Aug. 23, 1917 – Died in Houston, Texas, Sept. 4, 2010

His family immigrated to Houston in 1921, where he grew up in the old Fifth Ward near downtown Houston. Trained as a watchmaker by his father, Hernandez entered the U.S. Army in 1943 and served in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, and France. He became an interpreter of Italian and French “because of his ability to easily pick up languages,” and while serving in Italy “became a naturalized American citizen.” Hernandez went on to earn his law degree and in 1960 became “the first Hispanic to preside as a judge in Harris County since Texas became a state.” In addition to his legal career, he was involved in the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), serving as counsel and as president of the national organization. In his work with LULAC, Hernandez played an important role in establishing the “Little School of the 400” that served as a pedagogical model for Head Start, the Bilingual Education Act, and Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Rudolf Kreb

U.S. Air Force and Master Sergeant, U.S. Army

Born in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Nov. 13, 1934 – Died in Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA, July 24, 2017

Born in an ethnically German community in what is now Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kreb’s “youth was shaped by his refugee experiences as a result of World War II in Europe.” At age 20, he immigrated to Canada, and then the United States, where he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 1962. After earning his Master’s and teaching high school German, Kreb changed his U.S. Army Reserve status to active duty, retiring in 1993 as a Master Sergeant after 20 years of active duty in the U.S. Army. Kreb lost his wife Margaret to cancer in 1991, then his partner Paula in 2001. His partner Betty and his brother Karl both died in early 2017. According to Kreb’s obituary, “Cancer may be cited as a contributing factor in his mortality, but anyone familiar with him recognizes the impact of a broken heart.”

Arnold C. Lee (Lee Chew Nam)

Master Sergeant, U.S. Army

Born in Mah Mei Woo, Taishan County, China, April 8, 1937 Died San Francisco, California, USA, June 23, 2017

Lee lived through the Japanese occupation of China before immigrating to the U.S. in 1950. He served in the U.S. Army from 1961 until retiring with the rank of Master Sergeant in 1997 and worked 34 years for the Federal Aviation Administration. Lee “believed in helping others for the betterment of the community” and “fought for San Francisco City College extension in Chinatown and increased services for Chinatown residents.” He “felt the Chinese needed more representation” and “supported many Asian and non-Asian public officials who shared his values.”

Lionel “Leo” Levac

U.S. Army, World War II Veteran

Born near Cornwall, Ontario, Canada, Jan. 20, 1923 – Died Grand Coulee, Washington, USA, July 25, 2017

When he was 6, his large family immigrated to the United States and settled in Massena, New York. Levac, who “excelled at math and claims to have read every history book in the school library,” “worked on a farm and in a bakery prior to enlisting in the U.S. Army on his 20th birthday.” Later in life Levac served on the Grand Coulee City Council and as Commander of the local VFW. “Until recently, he enjoyed bowling three times a week and a daily workout at the fitness center.”

Stanley Joseph Peloza

Sgt. Maj., USMC, Ret.

Born in Vele Mune, Austria (now Croatia), May 16, 1919 – Died Indianapolis, Indiana, USA, Aug. 20, 2017

At age 10, Peloza immigrated to the U.S. and was the spokesman for his family at Ellis Island. He enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps at age 17 and served for 31 years, retiring as a Sergeant Major. A “China Marine,” Peloza served in four wars: the Sino-Japanese War; World War II in the Pacific theater; the Korean Conflict; and Vietnam, “where he oversaw the establishment of the demilitarized zone in Da Nang.” One of the highlights of his later years was the inaugural Indianapolis Honor Flight to Washington D.C. (“At 92 years of age, he could still wear his uniform!”) A patriarchal figure who “kept far-flung relatives connected from Australia to Costa Rica to the United States to Canada to Italy to Germany to Austria to Dalmatia to Serbia to Croatia,” Peloza lived up to the Marine Corps motto and “was always faithful to his God, his family and his country.”

Alexander Enrique Peña

Chief Master Sergeant, United States Air Force Reserve, Vietnam War Veteran

Born Mexico City, Mexico, June 4, 1934 – Died San Antonio, Texas, USA, Aug. 25, 2017

Peña immigrated to America at an early age and settled with his family in San Antonio, Texas. He enlisted into the United States Army National Guard in 1954 and served four years. Later Peña joined the Air Force Reserve and in 1968 “was ordered to active duty in support of the Viet Nam War during the Pueblo Crisis” and served as an Aeromedical Evacuation Technician flying evacuation missions from Vietnam for over one year. Peña retired from the Air Force Reserve in 1994 after 40 years of service. “Alex lived the American dream as a citizen warrior achieving remarkable success with a steadfast commitment to continuous improvement both militarily and professionally.”

Francisco Jose Rodriguez

Lt. Col., U.S. Army Medical Corps

Born Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, Feb. 8, 1936 Died San Antonio, Texas, USA, June 21, 2017

Rodriguez earned his medical degree from the University of Santo Domingo and then interned and did residencies at hospitals in the United States. In 1966, he moved to San Antonio, Texas, becoming “the first Hispanic psychiatrist in the city.” From 1969-71 Rodriguez served as a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army Medical Corps at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Later he was Chief of Staff at South West General Hospital and from 1977-88 was part owner of the San Antonio Spurs.

Yevgeniy Ryndych

Sergeant, U.S. Army, Iraq War Veteran, KIA in Iraq

Born Ukraine, c. 1982 – Died Ramadi, Iraq, Dec. 6, 2006

Russian-speaking immigrants from Ukraine, Ryndych and his family moved to New York in 1998. Shortly after the 2001 terror attacks, Ryndych enlisted in the Army. He was a skilled marksman, according to his brother, ranking No. 3 among the thousands of troops based at Fort Carson. Ryndych was engaged to be married, having proposed over the phone from Iraq. He died before he could tell his family and before the engagement ring he’d ordered on the internet could be delivered.

Thomas Edgar Smith Sr.

U.S. Army, 101st Airborne Division, World War II Veteran

Born in Birmingham, England, Aug. 15, 1924 Died in California, USA, June 4, 2017

At the age of 1, Smith immigrated with his parents and older siblings to El Monte, California. He joined the Army less than a week after his high school graduation in June 1943 and was assigned to the renowned 101st Airborne Division, Screaming Eagles. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge and the Normandy invasion (“On D-Day, his unit was inserted to the front in glider planes carrying men and equipment”) before his honorable discharge in January 1946. Smith joined the Pasadena Fire Department and served from 1949 until his retirement in 1975.

Ming Sun

Pfc., U.S. Army, KIA in Iraq

Born in China, 1986 – Died in Ramadi, Iraq, Jan. 9, 2007

“Ming Sun wanted to be a soldier and an American. The Chinese immigrant got both wishes. But one came after his death in Iraq.”

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