Last month marked 64 years since a young, bold and compassionate Army veteran and physician set out to ensure that veterans received equal benefits and care regardless of their race or ethnicity.
On March 26, 1948, Dr. Hector P. Garcia was joined by more than 700 fellow Mexican-American veterans in forming the American GI Forum in Corpus Christi.
Garcia, then 34, had attained the rank of major in the Army Medical Corps for his service in World War II. He was born in Mexico and brought as a young boy to Mercedes, Texas, in 1917, as his parents fled the Mexican Revolution.
He proved to be an able student, graduating from the University of Texas Medical School in 1940. He later joined the U.S. Army, serving as an infantryman, a combat engineer and a medical doctor during World War II. His distinguished service earned him the Bronze Star and six battle stars in Italy.
Upon returning from the war to Corpus Christi, Garcia began working with the Veterans Administration. He was disappointed when he noticed a disturbing trend: many of his fellow Mexican-American veterans were not receiving proper medical treatment and educational benefits.
"I had to learn the Constitution to become a citizen," Garcia said. "I knew all the rights, all the things that it gave us."
Many of the Mexican-Americans who served in World War II served not as officers, but as enlisted infantrymen and gunboat attendants on the front lines of battle. They made great sacrifices and shared a strong sense of accomplishment, noted by historian Henry Ramos: "These were highly courageous individuals who fought with fervor and conviction for the nation they represented."
However, many returning Mexican-American service members met long delays and general neglect when they sought the educational, financial and health benefits promised to them under the GI Bill. In Texas, the rate of receipt of VA checks for Mexican-Americans was typically six to eight months longer than their fellow veterans. Delays marked their applications for formal schooling, often preventing them from registering for school on time, and health care needs were being neglected.
In Corpus Christi, which was predominantly Hispanic, the city-county health unit had classified 34 percent of the area's family dwelling units as sub-standard in 1948. The death rate from tuberculosis was nearly twice the average for the state of Texas.
Prompted by these hardships, Garcia called together a meeting of more than 700 Mexican-American veterans to determine a course of action. On March 26, 1948, Garcia founded the American GI Forum to push for equal treatment. The name intentionally excluded any direct ethnic identification in order to emphasize the equality of all veterans, regardless of race or ethnicity.
A year later, the GI Forum and Garcia were catapulted into national prominence by what became known as the "Felix Longoria Affair." Felix Longoria, from Three Rivers, Texas, was a soldier killed by a Japanese sniper in the Philippines during World War II.
He was originally interred there, but in 1949, his widow decided to move his body home. The funeral director, however, declared she could not hold a wake in the town's sole funeral chapel because the dead man was a Mexican-American.
Garcia contacted then-U.S. Sen. Lyndon Johnson, who arranged a burial for Longoria with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery, with Garcia and the news media in attendance.
Afterwards, Garcia and the GI Forum became a forceful advocate and publicist for equal rights. Garcia was known to accomplish most of his best work quietly. Judge James deAnda recalled accompanying the doctor to an abandoned railroad boxcar to treat a dying grandfather.
"He took care of the man, and we would go in other homes that were just about as humble," deAnda said. "The people obviously had no means of paying or even getting to his office. He would see all these people and administer to them. They had just absolute faith in the man."
At President Johnson's nomination, Garcia became the first Mexican-American to serve as an ambassador to the United Nations. He was also the first Hispanic on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Before he died in 1996, Garcia received dozens of additional awards and honors.
In 1984, President Ronald Reagan bestowed upon Garcia the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
"That was the highlight of his life," recalled Garcia's daughter, Cecilia Akers. "He wore that medal everywhere he went."
Several years ago, I was proud to have a hand in adding the names of two Texas civil rights pioneers, including Garcia, to the official title of the Voting Rights Act. This amended title was signed into law by President Bush in 2008, and I was humbled to present an engraved copy of the bill to Hector Garcia's widow, Wanda.
In military service, in medicine, and in the civil rights movement, Dr. Garcia answered the call of duty at every opportunity and made a positive difference in the lives of millions of Americans.
His story reminds us all that progress in our society is often made possible by the devotion of selfless men and women, who give and sacrifice for greater principles.
Sources: The American GI Forum: In Pursuit of the Dream, 1948-1983 by Henry Ramos; Texas State Historical Association
Sen. Cornyn serves on the Finance, Judiciary, Armed Services, and Budget Committees. He serves as the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee's Immigration, Refugees and Border Security subcommittee. He served previously as Texas Attorney General, Texas Supreme Court Justice, and Bexar County District Judge.