EL PASO – Each of the 50 stars on a retired American flag is cut out into a rectangle and slid into a small plastic bag, accompanied by a message on a card and is given to soldiers being deployed to war zones by veterans who fought in the Vietnam War.
The message, which the soldier keeps, reads, “This star is part of a U.S. flag which flew proudly over El Paso, Texas. Keep this star and let it guide you home to the arms of a grateful nation.”
“The most rewarding is giving them our appreciation for their service,” says veteran Miguel Fernandez, a member of the Vietnam Veterans of America Wieland C. Norris Chapter 844.
These pieces of the flag are given to soldiers headed overseas by the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 844. The organization hosts events for outgoing and incoming soldiers throughout the year. Fernandez said they start each meeting by “posting colors,” (putting up flags) followed by a small ceremony, in which the commanding officer of the unit being honored says a few words, then the commander of the post briefs the audience, welcoming the troops home or wishing them well on their mission.
Fernandez, 62, was born and raised in El Paso and has a 29-year-old daughter. After graduating from high school in 1969 he gave the University of Texas at El Paso a try. “I didn’t take college serious enough, so my grades weren’t very good,” he said and so he was unable to get an education deferment. “So I had my number picked like the lottery and I was drafted in 1970.”
Now as a recruiter for El Paso Community College, he stresses to students the importance of education and career planning. “I didn’t choose to go into the military,” he said.
Fernandez said he takes pride in serving soldiers and his community. He has been getting people into school, he said, a step at a time, a day at a time for over nine years now.
“Then, everybody says OK, line up and get your food.” After the star ceremony, dinner is served – hamburgers, hot dogs or brisket and chicken. The Bowen Ranch even cooked for the soldiers once, Fernandez said. “They brought their big old grills, and we fed them steaks.”
“No one ever welcomed us. That’s why we want to welcome them home,” said Fernandez. It is much different now than how it was then, he said. Today, you see soldiers come back in units. The family is there with signs like, “daddy, welcome home.”
But back then, “the only person that welcomed you was the taxi driver,” said Fernandez, laughing. “And he didn’t even say welcome. He just asked me, where are you going?”