Veterans demand statehood before Congress
Veterans residing in Puerto Rico came to the United States Congress to denounce the lack of civil rights for which they have fought in different armed conflicts, but that they are denied because they reside in a territory, and to call for the extension of full equality to Puerto Rico through admission as a state.
Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González Colón (NPP, R) of Puerto Rico together with Representatives Darren Soto (D) of Florida, Mike Waltz (R) of Florida, Rubén Gallego (D) of Florida, and Delegate Amata Radewagen (R) of American Samoa accompanied the nearly 30 veterans led by retired US Army Brigadier General Víctor Pérez at a press conference in front of the federal Capitol, where they reiterated their complaint and reported on the meetings with other Congress members held during the week.
Veterans met with members of Congress from both national political parties, with a focus on members of the Armed Services, Veterans Affairs, and Natural Resources committees, among others. They exposed the inequalities in rights, representation, access to health services, and benefits that they face once they return to Puerto Rico due to the differential treatment that is allowed to apply to a non-state territory.
“This is the fourth large delegation of citizens that has come to the federal capital to promote equality for Puerto Rico: women, youth, the extended shadow delegation, and now veterans. And this last is the group for whom inequality hurts most because they are the ones who have precisely fought for the rights of all American citizens, however, once they return home, they cannot fully enjoy them,” said the Resident Commissioner.
González-Colón indicated that “over 1,900 American citizens born in Puerto Rico have given their lives to defend democracy; since September 11, 2001, our Guard and Reserves have been mobilized 16,500 times, more than 34 other states; 52% of people in Puerto Rico either have served in the Armed Forces or have a family member who served. Puerto Ricans are proud of our trajectory defending the nation and it has been recognized with 9 Medals of Honor, the Congressional Gold Medal, among other national and international decorations, but it is totally unfair that they are stripped of the rights that we have secured, by returning home under a discriminatory political status.”
“With over 90,000 veterans calling Puerto Rico home, it is crucial for our nation to ensure that they receive the same treatment as their counterparts on the mainland. As a result of the island’s territorial status, there are limited opportunities for economic opportunity, health security, quality of life improvements, and more,” said Soto. “For their sacrifice, we must fight for them to have access to their rightfully earned benefits. I am committed to working in Congress to find solutions that keep the best interests of Puerto Rican veterans at the forefront.”
Representative Waltz also spoke saying that “with one of the highest military participation rates in the nation, tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans are actively serving our country and well over 90,000 American veterans call Puerto Rico home today. Just like their counterparts on the mainland, these brave servicemen and women have fought for our flag, for our country, and for freedom. But right now, these brave men and women are being treated unequally under federal law. That’s why I’m proud to stand with Congresswoman González-Colón and the people of Puerto Rico in support of equal treatment and benefits for Puerto Rican service members and veterans.”
Delegate Amata’s support was notable, given her opposition to closer integration of American Samoa to the US. She stated that “much like Puerto Rico, I represent a constituency in American Samoa that includes many veterans and military families, and I know they have hearts full of patriotism for the United States. The nation makes a lifelong commitment to those who serve, and they all deserve to fully share in that national commitment. Thank you especially to Congresswoman González-Colón for making sure these issues cannot be forgotten.”
Army Brigadier General (retired) Víctor Pérez said: “For the veterans of Puerto Rico and those of us who have served, there has been no greater honor, greater privilege in our lives than having, precisely, defended democracy, justice, and freedom to all the places we had to go, such as World War I and II, Korea, Vietnam, and in modern times, the war on terror, serving our nation. We did it and we would do it again every time we have to because we do it with all our heart for our nation of which we are a part of. We are American citizens, but incredibly, we go, we do all that, we return to our Puerto Rico, and we do not have the equality that all the others who serve the nation and return to their states have, such as voting for the president and voting for their senators and congressmen. We cannot vote for those who decide exactly when and where we must go to fight and give our blood, while our family sacrifices itself, while we are in distant lands and again, we return, and we do not have the equality for which we went to fight to all these places where we have fought”.
Puerto Rico’s current political status as a United States territory denies veterans representation in the United States Senate and proportional representation in the House of Representatives. Under this territorial status, Puerto Rico is subject to federal law, but Congress can and often does treat Puerto Rico differently, in ways that are detrimental to veterans in terms of economic opportunity, health, safety, and quality of life. As an example, retired veterans cannot participate in TRICARE Prime. This increases out-of-pocket costs and makes it difficult to coordinate care.