The century-old veterans organization the American Legion counts all who served active duty in any of the branches of the U.S. armed forces as members. But for young Latino veterans like Marcos Torres and Daniel Del Rivero, it didn’t seem like a place for them.
“When I joined the United States Army in 2007, when I arrived for basic in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, we arrived at the airport at Oklahoma City,” recalls Torres. “You had Legionnaires there and right away they, like, gave us snacks and they fed us and were like, ‘here sign this paper, sign this paper, you’re in the American Legion now you’re good to go.’”
“I just knew they were kind of a veteran social club who wore, you know, specific unique hats and I thought they were just an older generation of veterans,” said Del Rivero.
Once his time in service was done, Torres had forgotten all about his brief encounter with the American Legion. But he still sought out the company of veterans in his community. After hosting his own Veterans Day events for a few years, Torres visited American Legion Tattler Post 973 and inspiration struck.
“I fell in love with it. I mean everybody was amazing. And so I started asking questions like, hey, where do I find my Latino brothers? Where do I find my African American brothers? Where are they at? Why don’t they have a post?” said Torres. “And so I decided, you know what we need to start an American Legion post that represents those soldiers in that community. So that way we make sure that they’re getting taken care of and they’re being spoken for.”
Tattler Post commander Brent Webb helped Torres get a rare new American Legion post chartered, and in 2019, Sergeant Jason Vazquez Post 939 became official. Torres took on the position of post commander.
“I think that what post 939 is doing is something that’s really remarkable,” said Webb. “Marcos and the team that he’s built has done something that is going to bring together a part of the veteran community that has felt disconnected and I’m here to support that 100% because I couldn’t think of something that’s more American, that’s more patriotic, than wanting to bring together the individuals that want to do good for our neighbors.”
Torres and his team are building a post with a distinctly and intentionally Latino identity. Its name honors a 24-year-old National Guardsman who was killed in Afghanistan in 2008. Torres led the honor guard that laid Jason Vazquez to rest.
Torres first approached Vazquez’s family to get their approval for the post’s name. Vazquez’s uncle, Ricky Davila, said they felt “grateful and honored” to have Post 939 carry on Jason’s legacy.
“What a wonderful thing that Jason would … be part of a Legion, and it would be in our community … somewhere to celebrate and come together,” said Davila. “It means a lot.”
Even the post’s number is Latino – 939 is one of the area codes for Puerto Rico.
“It’s just kind of our little trademark or watermark that will continue long after we leave,” said post vice commander Christopher Garibay.
Post 939 has a distinct mission, too – supporting Latino veterans’ mental health by offering community and representation.
There’s a big phrase in the military – “it’s called suffer in silence,” said Daniel Del Rivero, who is Post 939 adjutant. “When I was in the job I did, if you asked for any sort of mental help, you were essentially ineffective. You weren’t doing your job, you weren’t helping your buddies out. And that’s something that’s kind of, I think going along with the culture of veterans, I think that’s something we can change.”
“With regards to the veteran community, we know that they are at higher risks for suicide, homelessness, unemployment and underemployment,” said Garibay. “And so it’s our job, our responsibility as an American Legion post, to attack systematically these issues, one by one, for all veterans, but particularly we would like to address the Latino population.”
One way Post 939 plans to make Latino veterans feel at home is telling their shared history.
“As a Latino veteran, our needs are different, our environment is different, our music is different, our food is different,” said Post 939 member Waldemar Cruz. “We’re always known as the culture that wants to dance and have a good time but at the same time we want to share the experiences we have as veterans, share our history, the Borinqueneers, the Puerto Ricans that served in Vietnam.”
Post 939 sergeant-at-arms Samuel Dominguez believes it’s important to see the history of Latino veterans honored in local posts.
“If you do go to a post, you don’t see pictures of Roy Benavidez, he was a Medal of Honor recipient. You don’t see anything that explains or that talks about the 10,000 Mexican Americans who fought in the Union Army fighting against slavery. When we come back from deployments or come back from our service, it’s important to keep on seeing those things so that we can thrive.”
The leaders of Jason Vazquez Post 939 are scouting locations for a home base in Humboldt Park or Logan Square. But until they find that place, they’re meeting at the Tattler Post in Lincoln Square.
“It’s a welcoming space where they can come, they can laugh, they can joke, they can still feel that camaraderie is really healing to a lot of veterans,” says Torres.
And Chris Garibay says they want you to join them. “Post 939 is on the march and we are looking for people that want to be a part of this mission with us as well.”
Memorial Day event
Jason Vazquez Post 939 and Tattler Post 973 will host a Memorial Day parade and ceremony Monday at 9:45 a.m. at the Rosehill Cemetery Veterans Memorial located at 5800 N. Ravenswood Ave., followed by a free pig roast and commemoration at noon at the Tattler Post located at 4355 N. Western Ave.