Palm Bay man served with distinction


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Arcadio Santiago-Rodriguez, left, a World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War veteran, recently was honored during a professional boxing night in Palm Bay. He served in the 65th Infantry Regiment known as the Borinqueneers.

Jeff Navin

At 92, Arcadio Santiago-Rodriguez is enjoying his retirement in Palm Bay. Not many in Brevard County deserve it as much.

Santiago-Rodriguez served in the United States Army during World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. During World War II and the Korean War, he fought as a member of the 65th Infantry Regiment known as the Borinqueneers. It was a segregated unit composed primarily of soldiers from Puerto Rico.

In 2014, the Borinqueneers were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in a ceremony at the White House. Santiago-Rodriguez was one of eight Borinqueneers to attend the ceremony and meet President Obama.

“I had four brothers in the Borinqueneers — we were five — who served in the 65th Infantry,” said Santiago-Rodriguez, who grew up on a farm in Cidra, Puerto Rico. “I’m so proud of our regiment. I was the second oldest — we were one behind the other.’’

Santiago-Rodriguez, who earned two Silver Stars, two Bronze Stars, the Purple Heart and retired as a first sergeant, recently was honored in between bouts during a professional boxing night in Palm Bay that was broadcast by NBC Deportes.

When Nazi Germany surrendered in 1945, Santiago-Rodriguez and one of his brothers left the military while the other three brothers remained as part of an occupation force in Germany.

“My brother and I went back to school,” Santiago-Rodriguez said. “At that time, President Harry S. Truman wanted nearly all the soldiers to leave the Armed Forces, but as reserves we were obligated for six years in case there was another war. In Korea in 1950, Truman told us, ‘I need you,’ and we went on to fight as enlisted reserves. That’s when I decided to make the Army my career.”

A year later, in late April 1951, Santiago-Rodriguez displayed the courage that exemplified the Borinqueneers and helped him earn a Silver Star.

While approaching a pass near Hingbok, Korea, the battalion was fired upon and the squad leader was mortally wounded. Santiago-Rodriguez assumed command and received orders to withdraw. He organized the squad and led it to a safer position.

During a later assault to drive the enemy from the ridge, Santiago-Rodriguez volunteered to carry a wounded soldier to safety. He then encountered five enemy soldiers. He placed his wounded comrade on the ground, killed four enemy soldiers and captured the fifth. He forced the enemy soldier to help carry the wounded soldier to the battalion aid station.

“My commanding officer told me face to face that I deserved the Congressional Medal of Honor, but I received the Silver Star only,” Santiago-Rodriguez said. “There was some racism, but I was happy with my career. In combat, you have to concentrate. If you don’t concentrate, you will get killed or wounded. You can’t think about being hungry or sleepy. I was a good soldier.”

After the Vietnam War, Santiago-Rodriguez was stationed at the Panama Canal for three years, in Germany three different times, the state of Washington, Colorado, North Carolina and Maryland. His last assignment brought him to Patrick Air Force Base, and he decided to live in Palm Bay upon his retirement in 1979.

Santiago-Rodriguez then drove school buses for 20 years.

“The kids respected me a lot,” Santiago-Rodriguez said. “People like to ask me a lot of questions. If you follow instructions, you can have a very good career in the Armed Forces.”

Santiago-Rodriguez has been married to his wife Bernarda, 64, for the past 20 years. They met in the Dominican Republic, her home country.

“The secret [to living a long life] is I take care of myself,” Santiago-Rodriguez said. “I don’t have any bad habits. I never smoked, I never drank and I eat well. I’m Puerto Rican — I like my rice and beans. And salads.”