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Capture of Soldiers Hits Home Hard

April 3, 1999

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Bernie Rios’ heart sank when he flipped on his television and saw boyhood friend Andrew Ramirez after he was captured by Serb forces at the Yugoslavia-Macedonia border.

Rios, 33, grew up two houses down from the Ramirez family in a blue-collar East Los Angeles neighborhood, played touch football with him on the street and saw him grow into a clean-cut young man.

And then this image on his TV screen: the 24-year-old Army staff sergeant in his camouflage fatigues, looking tired and bruised.

``When it’s one of your own,″ Rios said Friday, ``it really touches you.″

NATO airstrikes against Yugoslavia have finally hit home for many Hispanic-American residents of East Los Angeles, which over the years has sent thousands of its native sons into uniform.

They have come into harm’s way long before Ramirez decided to join the Army, and they’ll do so for years to come, said Daniel Ortiz, a Gulf War veteran and commander of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post.

Ortiz’s VFW branch is housed at American Legion Post 804, a navy blue building tucked among modest storefronts on Cesar Chavez Avenue. Inside, the names of Hispanic-American veterans are etched on murals, plaques and pictures that cover the walls.

The veterans’ fierce patriotism is obvious. One bumper sticker with an American flag reads, ``YOU’LL BURN IT OVER MY DEAD BODY!″ A flyer tacked on a bulletin board features a sniper’s target superimposed over a mug shot of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

``Being the hyphenated ‘Mexican-American,’ a lot of people take it for granted that we ARE American, first and foremost,″ Ortiz said. ``A lot of people join the military to show we want to be counted.″

In the past, Hispanic-Americans joined because they didn’t have enough money to go to college.

``Our people needed an alternative, so they joined the military and had pride in being an American,″ Ortiz said. ``When our country calls, we’re proud to step forward and defend our country. Now, it’s like a tradition with our culture.″

They enlist to break free from a landscape of few opportunities and low-paying jobs, said Rios, whose father was a Marine corporal during the Korean conflict.

Down the street from Post 804 is the ``Five Points″ memorial, dedicated to Hispanic-Americans who served in every U.S. military conflict. Walking past was John Murro, a 58-year-old who served at an Army field hospital during the Vietnam War.

Murro became jaded by the lack of support on the home front when he returned to the United States from Vietnam, but he has been encouraged by the outpouring of sympathy for the Ramirez family.

``I felt so bad for them,″ Murro said. ``But I saw the yellow ribbons and I think that’s great. It makes you feel like there are some good people still out there.″

Similar outpourings of support were happening in the hometowns of the two other soldiers captured by Yugoslav troops.

In Capac, Mich., people headed to church Friday to pray for Army Staff Sgt. Christopher Stone. ``You always think it’s somebody else’s family this is going to happen to,″ said Deanna Stone, his sister. ``I just want to go over and help him.″

In Texas, those who met with the parents of Army Spc. Steven Gonzales described them as apprehensive, waiting anxiously for information as court proceedings there got under way against the three Americans.

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