More than 60 years after the death of Private First Class Marine Eugene A. Obregon, the fallen marine who received the Medal of Honor after sacrificing his life to save another during the Korean War, was remembered by his fellow Marines in his hometown of East Los Angeles, a community that is in some way just beginning to embrace his legacy.
Dan Zepeda, Jr. a Vietnam veteran and the Post Commandant for the Eugene A. Obregon Marine Corps League Detachment based in East Los Angeles, helped organize the ceremony that included speeches, color guard and a three-volley salute, a ceremonial tradition performed at funerals of fallen soldiers. He told EGP after the ceremony that Obregon’s Medal of Honor should hold special significance in the Hispanic community.
“If you look at the history of the Medal of Honor, the highest percentage for a race, has been presented to Hispanics, Latinos,” said Zepeda.
Obregon may have faced discrimination during his short life, but the Marine Corps motto, “Semper Fidelis,” Latin for always faithful, was instilled in every Marine during training, regardless of their color.
“At a time when being a Hispanic was somewhat detrimental,” Zepeda said, “we trained with these white people side by side and then we went to war with them side by side, and side by side Eugene gave his life for a young white man, and race wasn’t the thing right then and there. It was a fellow marine that was in need of getting out of harms way and Eugene just went out there and did what he thought he had to do.”
Zepeda told EGP that Obregon’s story should be shared, especially during Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs from Sept. 15 through Oct. 15 and is meant to recognize the contributions made by Hispanics to the nation.
The timing of the commemoration was especially poignant, given the number of young men who continue to die in the war in Afghanistan. This week the Associated Press reported that the US military death toll in Afghanistan has reached 2,000, “a cold reminder of the human cost of an 11-year-old conflict that now garners little public interest at home as the United States prepares to withdraw most of its combat forces by the end of 2014.”
But there are any people in the community who are unaware of the sacrifices Hispanic men like Obregon have made for their country.
“Speaking to a few people at the park, they didn’t even know why Obregon Park was named after him, said Saul Audelo, a Vietnam veteran who is the Sergeant-at-Arms for the detachment. But, “we enlightened them.”
Zepeda says the community should never forget Obregon’s sacrifice, and should teach its children about his legacy. Young men like him should always be remembered, Zepeda said.
The ceremony, held 62 years after Obregon’s death, caused when the 19-year-old marine used his own body as a shield protecting a fellow marine from enemy fire, commemorated the Medal of Honor Obregon received, the highest military honor.
Major Dominique Neal, Commanding Officer of Recruiting Station Los Angeles served in Afghanistan and Iraq. He told the audience, mostly made of up of Marine Corps supporters, veterans and marines currently serving, what the Medal of Honor means.
“The medal of honor is an award of uncommon valor, when a person stands up against the potentially unbeatable foe with unwinnable odds … and inspires greatness,” Major Neil said. “This heroic act inspires us to live as good honest Americans and some of us, good honest marines.”
Jose Verduzco, a former marine who received a Purple Heart after being wounded in Vietnam in 1969 and whose son is also a marine, told EGP he was there to pay his respects to a fellow marine.
“I’ve met two living Medal of Honor winners and I’ve been around two Medal of Honor winners in Vietnam that earned it posthumously,” Verduzco said. “So it’s always a treasure to be around marines and specially to honor those that have paid the ultimate price.”
Verduzco’s uncle served in the same division as Obregon, and he told EGP that there are still many families in East Los Angeles who, like the Marine creed, faithfully honor their fellow marines.
“We weren’t told to be here we chose to be here,” Verduzco said. “We could be doing other things but we’re here, we know what honor and sacrifice is and we know what always faithful is.”
Major Neal told EGP that anytime there is an anniversary or memorial for the Medal of Honor, Marines like him take part.
“What he did shows the highest honor that any servicemember can ever do, which is sacrifice himself, put himself in mortal danger,” Neil told EGP. “[The memorial] is to ensure that these marines, their story, who they are as a person, who they are as Americans, continues to live on … as Americans, we have a responsibility and a duty to ensure of that they are always remembered and taken care of.”
During his speech, Neal directed himself to Virginia LaCarra, Obregon’s sister. “I can’t give you back your brother but what I can give you is a legacy that the Marine Corps will always live up to,” said Neal.
LaCarra told EGP that she feels her brother is still around when others recognize him.
“My brother is never forgotten, he is always in everybody’s mind,” LaCarra said. “I know he would feel very honored, just like we are.”
Zepeda started the detachment that bears Obregon’s name three years ago after receiving permission from LaCarra to use her brother’s name.
“One of the things I promised her was to always honor her brother’s name and keep it in the forefront,” Zepeda said. “One of the things I told her we would do was have some type of ceremony like this to commemorate his efforts, his actions and receiving the Medal of Honor, and we’ve been able to do that.”
Nick Rosa, the commandant and organizer of the event felt the turnout was better than expected.
“This is the best turnout we ever had,” he said. “This is the third year we have done it and we never had a turnout like this.”
Marines from the Pasadena reserve, members of the American Legion and community supporters through the Marine Detachment attended, according to Rosa, who added “a lot of people … don’t know what sacrifices are made for our freedom.”
Verduzco told EGP that despite the lack of support from the non-military community, he hopes people will eventually want to attend such ceremonies.
“This is what we fought for, whether they want to be here or not they have the choice. But once the word gets out they’ll say wow I could have been there.”
Albert F. Morales, a WW2 veteran who attended the ceremony and says he lives “right around the corner” from Obregon’s sister, still paid his respects to the fallen soldier despite never meeting him.
“I didn’t know him…I never met him but that don’t mean nothing…I’m in his same tracks,” said Morales.
For those who don’t attend memorials regularly, Major Neal hopes they express their appreciation in other ways.
“Take time to reflect on Veterans Day, on Memorial Day… instead of going out to a BBQ go to a national cemetery, a veteran cemetery, plant some flags, take some time and read the headstones,” Major Neal said. “We owe it to these individuals to be good Americans, to be good people and seize the opportunity to take advantage that our fellow servicemen allow us to have.”