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Silvestre Herrera - Someone You Should Have Known

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Sitting in his home, Nov. 17, Medal of Honor recipient Silvestre Herrera sat down to discuss his actions during his time with the Texas National Guard's 36th Division in World War II. Herrera was the first Arizonian to receive the highest military medal in the United States. Herrera passed away at his home in Phoenix, Nov. 26. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Benjamin Cossel, Operation Jump Start - Arizona Public Affairs). Date Taken: November 17th, 200. Location: Arizona, US. Photographer: Sgt. Benjamin Cossel, Arizona National Guard Public Affairs.

Thought I would share this excellent article by Sergeant Benjamin Cossel:

Profile in Heroism; Medal of Honor Recipient, Silvestre Herrera

By Sgt. Benjamin Cossel
Operation Jump Start - Arizona Public Affairs

PHOENIX, Ariz. -- Combat - the ultimate proving ground where service members put to test their years of training. Fear - the natural reaction to unnatural situations where the mind tells the body to go into survival mode and flee. Courage - the mind ignoring its natural reactions and pushing forward in the face of certain disaster.

On the morning of March 15, 1945, near the village of Mertzwiller, France, a young private first class with the Texas National Guard's 36th Division was faced with all three; combat, fear, and overwhelming courage when his platoon came under a heavy machine-gun attack. Mexican-born Silvestre Herrera faced down his fear and the enemy when he charged the source of the rifle fire, suppressing the German assault, and allowing his platoon to continue.

Later that same day, Herrera would walk through a minefield drawing deadly rounds away from their intended mark. He lost both his legs in the engagement, all the while keeping his M-1 Garand Rifle trained on the source stronghold thereby allowing his brothers-in-arms to flank and overrun the enemy position.

For his actions, Herrera was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. But that is just the beginning of the story...

...Moving to Arizona in 1928 with his wife, Herrera was drafted into the United States Army in 1944. At the time, Herrera's wife was pregnant with the family's fourth child and it was then that he learned of his true origins.

Born in Chihuahua, Mexico, Herrera and his family moved to El Paso, Texas, when he was just a baby. In his mind, he was a U.S. citizen, as were the man and woman he called his parents - but none of it was true.

The man Herrera knew as his father until that day explained that Herrera's biological parents succumbed to a wave of influenza that swept through their tiny town of Camargo when Herrera was only a year old. His uncle had brought young Herrera to El Paso to make a better life for them all.

"You don't have to go," his uncle told him. "You're not a U.S. citizen."

But Herrera was compelled.

"This country had already provided so much for me and my family at that time that I wanted to go," said Herrera. "Besides, I didn't want someone else dying in my place."

His newly discovered status as a non-citizen also weighed on the mind of Herrera.

"They told us if we served in the Army, we would be able to get our citizenship," he explained. "I knew this was something I wanted to do."

And so Herrera joined the Texas Army National Guard reporting for boot camp at Fort McClellan, Ala. He was assigned to Company E, 142nd Infantry, 36th Division, and was immediately on his way to the European front with the first American unit to land in Europe during World War II.

Fast forward to a recent November afternoon, Herrera's frail, 90-year-old body folded into the comfy confines of his easy chair, he thinks back to his days and the actions that not only earned him the Medal of Honor but also the Premier Merito Militar, Mexico's equivalent to the MOH. Herrera is the only person in history to be distinguished with both medals.

"I'm no hero," he says sheepishly. "To say that I am would be bragging."

Nostalgia rolls over him and Herrera's mind gently floats back to Mertzwiller.

"It seems to me that I was always where trouble was," he said. "I remember on that day when we heard the enemy, I started speaking really loud English so the Germans would know who we were. I couldn't really tell where the orders were coming from and so I just kept advancing," he stops for a minute as a particular memory grabs hold.

"Those Germans, they were really nice people. I remember they all had bad trench foot when we captured them."

Herrera doesn't see his actions that day as brave; he thinks he was just doing what needed to be done, what any good Soldier would have done.

"I remember I kept thinking to myself that I had to do everything I could to give my company a chance to advance, and so, that's what I did."

Herrera blushes from the constant talk of his valiant actions, preferring instead to move the conversation to his life since then.

"This is an amazing country we live in and if you're not too lazy and work hard, you can really make something for yourself here," he said.

When Herrera was presented the Medal of Honor by President Harry Truman, there was mighty concern as to the young Pfc.'s health. But on morning of August 23, 1945, Herrera wheeled his chair across the White House lawn for the distinction. A year later, he was presented with the Premier Merito Militar and granted U.S. Citizenship.

"You can never feel sorry for yourself," said Herrera. "I've never let anything be an obstacle. When I couldn't walk, I crawled. I don't cry for my legs, I never did. They're gone, they don't care."

And Herrera practices what he preaches as a regular on dance floors and frequent speaker at community forums. He is also the perennial grand marshal in Phoenix's Veteran's Day parade.

Herrera left the Army at the rank of sergeant. He was the first Arizonian to receive the Medal of Honor. An elementary school in Phoenix bears his name and, on October 24, 1998, the United States Army Reserve Center in Mesa, which houses the 164th Corps Support Group, was dedicated in his honor. In addition, just recently, the Arizona Army National Guard re-designated its Noncommissioned Officer of the Year award as the Silvestre Herrera Noncommissioned Officer of the Year award.

On the morning of Nov. 26, family members went into Herrera's room to wake him for the day. Unresponsive, they called the fire department. Herrera was pronounced dead at his home, just a month short of his 91st birthday.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Medal of Honor Winner, Silvestre Herrera passed away at his home, Nov. 26, just a few days after sitting down with us and granting this interview. He was an icon in Phoenix, he will be sorely missed and his memory will last forever.

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