The Washington Post
Saturday, March 1, 2003; Page A01

Fighting 'Their War'

For Soldiers With Mexican Roots, A Struggle of Pride vs. Heritage

By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service

FORT BLISS, Tex. -- Knapsacks and M-16 rifles for 125 U.S. Army soldiers were laid in neat rows on a gymnasium floor as another group prepared to ship out
for the Middle East. Amid the hugs and tears and crying babies, many families sat chatting softly with each other in Spanish, tucking Mexican music tapes and novels
into their duffels and packing away medals of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico's patron saint.

"There are a lot of us," said Sgt. Juan Delgado, 27, a Mexican-born Patriot missile system technician who came to the United States when he was 3 years old but
became a U.S. citizen just last year. "We're not all illegals," said Delgado, sitting on a gym bleacher with his 2-month-old son and his wife, Judith, who speaks only
Spanish. "I'm an American and I'm proud to be a soldier."

The number of Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the U.S. military is growing, perhaps nowhere more visibly than here on the United States' largest military base,
a 1,700-square-mile expanse of desert and hills. Soldiers with Mexican backgrounds make up the overwhelming majority of some units here, mirroring the general
off-base population in the border city of El Paso.

For many of those troops, serving in the U.S. military is a source of pride, but also of deep personal conflict. They wrestle with the weight of culture and a tradition in
which Mexican nationalism has long been measured by opposition to its powerful northern neighbor. Mexican public opinion is overwhelmingly against a war with
Iraq. President Vicente Fox has said Mexico, which holds a seat on the U.N. Security Council, will oppose unilateral U.S. military action against Saddam Hussein.
In a country with a deep reluctance to get involved in conflicts outside its borders, the antiwar sentiment is raw and passionate.

"My family in Mexico says, 'What are you doing?' " said Sgt. Alfonso Villalobos, also a Patriot missile technician. "But I'm here now and I'm an American."

Fort Bliss is just over a mile from Ciudad Juarez, where criticism of the war is especially vocal because of concern that any terrorist attack against Fort Bliss or El
Paso would affect the people there. Heightened states of alert in the United States also mean hours of delay for hundreds of thousands of Mexicans who cross the
border legally each day to work, study or shop.

"The Mexicans in the U.S. Army are trapped between two walls," said Delgado's mother-in-law, Rosa Isela Chavez, interviewed by telephone at her home in the
railway junction city of Parral, 300 miles south of the border in Chihuahua state. "They have Mexican heritage on one hand and duty to the United States on the
other. It's a very hard place to be."

She said the war is a strictly American desire -- she calls it "their war." She is upset to think that her daughter's husband might end up dying in the service of
President Bush and the United States.

"It's his job. But I don't like what he is going to do," she said. "I don't like this war. I don't like Bush. He is hurting the world. He doesn't realize the harm he is doing
to everyone. I believe Saddam can be disarmed without a war."

In news widely reported in Mexico, Spc. Rodrigo Gonzalez Garza, 26, a U.S. soldier born in the Mexican state of Coahuila, was killed Tuesday with three other
soldiers when their Black Hawk helicopter crashed in Kuwait.

Soldiers from Fort Bliss would be a key component in a war in Iraq. The desert base is home to the Patriot antimissile system, which is being deployed in Middle
East countries within range of Iraqi missiles. More than 4,000 troops from Fort Bliss have already been sent overseas.

Defense Department officials said that the number of Mexicans and Mexican Americans on active duty has increased from 39,000 in 1993, just after the Persian Gulf
War, to 55,400. Permanent residents of the United States are eligible for military service, so some Mexican soldiers have not yet become U.S. citizens.

However, military service can benefit those seeking citizenship. Immigration waiting periods and residence requirements can be waived for veterans of U.S. military
service, streamlining approval of their citizenship applications.

Overall, nearly 9 percent of enlisted men and women in the Army, Marines, Navy and Air Force were Hispanic in the year 2000, up from 4.7 percent in 1990,
according to Department of Defense statistics.

According to the 2000 Census, about a quarter of all Texans are of Mexican heritage. In El Paso, the official number is 64 percent, but local officials -- nearly all of
whom are Mexican Americans -- say the true number is far higher.

A spokeswoman at Fort Bliss, Jean Offutt, said some National Guard and Reserve units here are as much as 80 percent Mexican. And civilian employees who run
the shops, bowling alleys and dining halls are overwhelmingly Mexican.

There is a certain irony to the large Mexican American presence at Fort Bliss. The base was founded in 1848, just after the two-year U.S.-Mexican War, which
resulted in the United States taking about half of Mexico's territory, including Texas, California, Nevada, New Mexico and Arizona. Mexicans are taught in school
that the war was an unjust land grab.

Olga Olivia Marcus, 20, a Juarez resident, has several cousins who are U.S. soldiers at Fort Bliss. She said they joined the Army simply because they couldn't find
other jobs in an increasingly unforgiving economy.

"I understand that they need work," she said during an interview a few yards from the border on the Mexican side. "But a lot of people find it hard to understand
why, if they are Mexicans, are they fighting for the United States?"

But the choice to join the U.S. Army often is about economics rather than history or nationalism.

Sgt. Luis Francisco Soliz, 29, was working at a Burger King two years ago when he decided to join the Army. Soliz, whose mother was Mexican and whose father
is Mexican American, had wanted to work for the FBI, the U.S. Border Patrol or another federal law enforcement agency. But none would hire him, and he had
grander ambitions than flipping burgers. So he enlisted.

"To be honest, a lot of people in Mexico look down on us because we're soldiers," Soliz said as he was saying his goodbyes to his father and other family members
in the base gym. "But it's not my fault that I was born in the United States. If Mexicans on the other side of the border were in my shoes, they'd feel the same way."

Soliz saw early on that joining the military was a way around anti-Mexican discrimination and could lead to a higher-paying civilian job after he got out. His father,
Margarito Lopez Soliz, a retired professor from the University of Texas at El Paso, fought in the Army during the Korean War.

"I joined the Army because in Illinois in those days they would only hire me as a garbage man," said the father, whose parents immigrated from Mexico's Guanajuato
state to Illinois in the early 20th century to help build railroads.

The younger Soliz's aunt, Mary McLaughlin, a Mexican married to an Irish American, came to see him off as well. At 77, she said she has watched generations of
Mexicans serve proudly in the U.S. military, although they faced discrimination in their daily lives.

She said she lived for 44 years in Silvis, Ill., on a street called Second Street, known then as Little Mexico. She remembered that when she attended elementary
school, she and seven other Mexican children in her class were forced to sit at a separate table. She said there was discrimination against Mexicans in hiring
everywhere except in the military.

More than 100 men and women from her street fought in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, and the street has since been renamed Hero Street
USA. Nationwide, 40 people of Hispanic origin, most of them Mexican Americans, have been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest award for
military valor, according to the Veterans Affairs Department.

In a sign of the upward mobility of many of the Mexicans, the Mexican American community has raised $300,000 to build a memorial to their sons and daughters
who fought in U.S. uniforms.

Asked if she considered herself an American patriot, McLaughlin said, "Praise the Lord, of course I am. Jobs in the military have always improved our lives, and
that's why I am happy to see Luis Francisco in the Army."

With that, she kissed her nephew good-bye. Hours later he boarded a plane for the Middle East.

                                               © 2003