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New Group Fights For Hispanic Veterans

State Organization Helps Former Servicemen And Women Claim Their Rightful Benefits

December 28, 2006
By HILDA MUÑOZ, Courant Staff Writer

After Manuel Reyes was discharged from the Air Force in 1971, he thought about using his veterans benefits to further his education. But his counselor didn't like the idea.

"She felt Vietnam veterans were not ready for civilian life. So basically she told me, `Go with your other brothers and collect unemployment,'" said Reyes, a New Britain resident who has served 20 years in the Connecticut National Guard.

Reyes' experience occurred more than 30 years ago, but a new veterans group says some former servicemen and women still have trouble getting the education, medical and financial benefits they have earned. Their problems sometimes involve language barriers, and sometimes veterans simply don't know what's available, the group says.

The Hispanic American Veterans of Connecticut Inc., of which Reyes is a member, was started last month to help veterans overcome such obstacles. The group, open to all veterans in the state, hopes its name will encourage Hispanic veterans to ask for help, said Juan Luis Cruz, the organization's president.

He said it shows Hispanics there are "people who speak your language and are willing to take care of you." Cruz served for eight years as an Army drill sergeant. He received an honorable discharge last year.

Of the 261,294 veterans in the state, 3.1 percent were Hispanic, according to the 2005 American community survey, an annual version of the national census, which is done every 10 years.

The idea for the state group was born from a parade.

Lucy Goicoechea Hernandez, special projects director at the Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission, rounded up about 50 Hispanic veterans to march in the Connecticut Veterans Day Parade in Hartford this year. It became evident after the parade that such a group should be formed, she said.

"I saw a need that day after the parade. These guys were elated," Hernandez said.

In late November, the executive director of the Puerto Rican Veterans Association of Massachusetts attended a meeting and volunteered to help the Connecticut group get started.

"The mission changed," said Julio Diaz, the group's treasurer. "Our vision and our goal is to assist veterans from the Connecticut area."

The group is still getting established. It's seeking corporate funding and nonprofit status. So far it has received a $5,000 grant from Aetna Inc.

The group has about 30 members from several towns and, though it meets monthly, has no headquarters. The next meeting is Jan. 13 at the San Juan Center in Hartford. Cruz said he hopes to begin offering services by the fall. Ultimately, the group would like to open its own center.

Reyes said he learned of the group from Hernandez.

"We're just trying to show our pride in our service to the nation, like other ethnic groups," Reyes said.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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