Recognition for Bravery


Raise your hand if you knew that 44 Latinos have been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. This honor, the highest award for valor against an enemy force to an individual serving in the U.S. Armed Forces, is traditionally bestowed upon the recipient by the President of the United States. As a rule, it’s bestowed posthumously and received by the family of the fallen soldier.

Benito “Ben” Gutierrez is a man who is distinctly proud of his Latino heritage. For most of his 93 years, Ben has maintained his lifelong commitment to advocating for equitable and fair treatment of Latinos. “History has been very unkind to Hispanics,” he says. Citing but one example, he states that “American history books never reveal that the Battle of the Alamo was about Mexicans fighting to keep their land in what is now the State of Texas,” proudly adding that the Gutierrez name is among those inscribed on the walls of the Shrine.

Ben himself is no stranger to combat. He served in the Pacific Theatre during World War II, flying bombing missions aboard B-24 aircraft. He recalls that “it was a good day when we came back with only 60 bullet holes in the skin of the aircraft.” He was one of 13 children, and all but one of Ben’s seven brothers saw combat in the Pacific and all returned home safely. “No one could tell my mother that God doesn’t answer prayers. Every Thursday morning, she assembled the ladies at the First Mexican Baptist Church in Detroit to pray for their sons. For us to have returned, I have to believe that God answered their heartfelt prayers,” he said.

Nearly 40 years after the end of the war, Ben found himself traveling across the country with Hector Barreto, Sr., then President of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, advocating on behalf of Hispanic owned businesses. Ben’s position afforded him access to national political leaders and he received numerous requests for assistance. It was one of these that called his attention to the challenges Latinos face in getting military recognition for their battlefield exploits.

“The evil of prejudice is alive and well, no matter where you go,” he states emphatically. Ben points to the case of U.S. Army Master Sergeant Roy Benavidez of Cuero, Texas, who fought for 13 years against a system determined to deny him his due. In May, 1968, Benavidez organized the evacuation of American troops during an intense firefight in Loc Ninh, Vietnam despite being severely wounded by shrapnel and enemy gunfire. The Citation for the Medal of Honor reads like a war thriller ( and is testament to Benavidez’ extraordinary bravery, dedication to rescuing his fellow soldiers and protecting the Army’s secrets. Despite accolades from those whose lives he saved, “Master Sgt. Benavidez’ commanding officer succeeded in pressing for a lesser award, the Distiguished Service Medal, to keep Sgt. Benavidez from being appropriately recognized for his bravery under fire,” says Ben.

The battle for recognition required the intervention of a senior military officer, then-Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and an act of Congress to prevail over a denial by the Army Decorations Board. In the end, the good guys won and President Reagan draped the Congressional Medal of Honor on Master Sergeant Benavidez.

Meeting this Hispanic American hero personally while attending the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce National Convention in Tampa, Florida prompted Gutierrez to think about other Latino Medal of Honor winners. His work was guided by a favorite verse from Scripture, John 15:13: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” In those days, pre-internet and before the widespread use of search engines, Ben conducted his own research to uncover those Hispanics who had won the Congressional Medal of Honor. It took considerable effort to collect the military citations and photographs of these brave heroes, and Ben’s persistence and dedication paid off. Each and every citation and photograph was carefully framed and placed on a Wall of Honor in the lobby of Gutierrez Industries, Ben’s automotive supply company.

Today, this invaluable piece of Hispanic American history is being temporarily relocated to VETBUILT , a Latino service disabled veteran-owned staffing and construction company established by former marine Robert Garcia in his hometown of Detroit. “VETBUILT was created specifically to help veterans get jobs in the civilian workforce,” says Garcia. “Seeing that we value veterans as our everyday responsibility, it is an honor to display this unique collection of Hispanic heroes.”

The transition was kicked off in a ceremony organized and publicized by Ben’s nephew, Kenneth Gutierrez of Delphi Corporation who serves on the Board of Directors of the Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and is enabling collaborations between the Chamber and local veterans’ organizations. In his remarks, Ben stated: “The strength and unity of Hispanics has been our love for God, Family and Country.”

Armando Ojeda