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My uncle, Yrineo Rodriguez Jr., affectionately called Junior, served in the U.S. Army from 1966-1969.

Recently, I sat down with my uncle to hear his story of having received a commendation by the Army for his excellent service as a hardworking, efficient mechanic. This is his story on being a recipient of the Army Commendation Medal:

“I was 18 years old and had just graduated from high school in Archbold, Ohio. At that time I received a letter that stated, ‘Greetings, you are hereby ordered for induction into the Armed Forces ….’ Two weeks later, I ended up on a bus to Wauseon, where we got picked up and taken to Cleveland, then to Fort Benning in Georgia, then Fort Campbell in Kentucky where I started my basic training followed by advanced training. Several of my friends from Fort Campbell were sent into combat in Vietnam, while I was one of the few sent to the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.

“As an 18-year-old at the time, I was scared to be sent to Vietnam. After all the training we got, we were so programmed that you wanted to fight anybody, it didn’t matter for what. But I was fortunate to have a prayer warrior as a mother. She didn’t want me to be sent to Vietnam. My mother (Tomasita Rodriguez) prayed for God’s protection over my life, and I was not directly sent into combat. However, I served my country in a different capacity. While I was at Aberdeen, I was trained in diesel mechanics. In this capacity, I played a vital role in maintaining and repairing military vehicles and equipment. I had to ensure that the Army’s resources remained operational and reliable in order to succeed in our mission. From here, I was sent to Fort Bragg in North Carolina and then to Germany where we landed in Frankfurt before being sent to Baumholder, Germany. It was here that I started my career as a tank mechanic. Later, I was promoted as the top mechanic, taking care of all the M60 tanks. I always made sure that my tanks met inspections and deadlines and passed without any infractions.

“I received a letter that said I was getting an Army commendation. This is given to soldiers for doing heroic things or for being outstanding in their field. I guess they thought that I was outstanding in having the top tanks with rarely any infractions. In fact, while serving in the Army we always had to be ready for a Command Readiness Inspection or an on-the-spot inspection. They never told you when they were coming and this one time, we had this one tank that had to meet a deadline, but we had to unload it first. This one tank I had to pull the motor out and replace it with a new oil pressure unit, yet it was going to take too long to have it ready for inspection. So, I had to reach in there with my hand to see if I could grab this unit from within, but I could barely touch it. Then I thought if I could stand in such a way that I use my legs to hold against the motor and with my arm reach against the side of the tank, I could probably grab the unit, but I needed a vice grip to clamp it. I told one of my buddies to get me a needle-nose vice grip because I didn’t have enough room to work in. He brought me the right type. I clamped the unit, started turning it slow until it finally moved, then I used my hand, pulled it out, put back the new one and we were ready to go! The thing is that we had to do this quickly and correctly to meet the inspection. Someone took notice of that as well and it got back to where I was then recommended for an award for both having tanks with the least infractions during inspections and for being outstanding in my job performance.

“I remember there was a parade with a lot of people, decorations, a band and we marched for about a half mile there in Baumholder, Germany, where I was the mechanic for the company. There were other guys there that were also in charge of the M60 tanks. So, among all the soldiers who were there, generals, colonels, captains, first sergeants and all, I was the only one that was an E-5 in ranking, which is equivalent to a sergeant but just an E-5, a Specialist 5.

“As I was seeing all the people clapping and cheering, it brought a tear to my eyes because I’m thinking I’m just this guy that came from humble beginnings and look at where I’m at. Both of my parents and six of my siblings as young children all came from Mexico and then I was the first one born here in the United States. I have seven brothers, but I was the only one that got drafted, and I think I was the only Hispanic in that group. This event I was participating in, it really moved me and touched me. Here I was, a young 21-year-old Hispanic man receiving an Army Commendation Medal.”

My uncle continued to tell me more of his experiences while serving in the Army, but for me the most inspiring was to hear that he too received an acknowledgment for the work he provided. Although the times have changed, back then his return was not a celebratory one but of hatred and shame that he experienced upon his arrival. Today we celebrate his dedication, selfless act of service, and love of country.

Tio Neo, we salute you and honor you on this day! Happy Veterans Day!

Dr. Abigail A. Rodriguez lives in Edinburg.