American Legion Staff Sgt. Jason Vazquez Post 939 celebrated its first year of serving the Latino community in Chicago on Oct. 16. Among the special guests were American Legion Past National Commander Ric Santos.
“It’s so important to the Latino community to have something like this to have something to hold onto, to have something to work with,” Santos said. “The Latino veterans utilizing a young man who died for his country, I believe that’s a great plus to serve their community and help everyone in the community, especially their fellow veterans. It’s a way that they can get together under their banner of culture and heritage.”
Post 939 — the number represents an area code in Puerto Rico — came to light when Army National Guard and Reserves veteran Marcos Torres was looking for camaraderie after his service in 2016.
“It was very hard to find Latino veterans or African-American veterans,” he recalled. “They were spread out. There was no central location for Latino veterans in my area, even though I know they had served. From there I decided we needed to change that.”
Torres was motivated by the 20 veterans who take their own life each day. “If veterans don’t have their own community, what do they have? I wanted them to see other men and women who served their country. Who bled for this country. For who the American dream was possible and worth fighting for.”
Vazquez, who served in the Army National Guard, was killed in Afghanistan in 2008. Naming the post after him was an easy decision.
“He was from this community, he was a Cook County sheriff’s officer and was in the military,” said Torres, who performed honor guard duties at the funeral for Vazquez. “He was already a leader in our community.
“He was taken from us and I wanted him to be honored. And I wanted it to resonate with people who knew him or have a last name similar to his.”
Torres approached Lisa Perez, Vazquez’s mother about three years ago about his vision. “Marcos had mentioned this to me that he wanted to do something to honor Jason,” she said. “We talked about it a few times and we said, ‘Let’s go for it.’”
Even as a youth, Vasquez wanted to help people.
“He was an achiever and a trendsetter,” Perez said. “You ask him what he wanted to be and he would say, ‘a police officer.’ He became a correctional officer and was going to be a Chicago police officer had he come back. That’s what he wanted to do.”
Instead, Vazquez decided to enter the military after the 9/11 attacks. It was another example of his dedication to helping others.
Perez is impressed and inspired by the post’s commitment to community. “It means a lot to me. I know he is looking down on us. Jason always told me that he was going to become famous but I didn’t know how. I guess his dream did come true.”
She is grateful to Torres and his post members for keeping her son’s legacy alive. “Marcos is doing a great job,” she says. “I am so proud of him.”
Santos credits Torres for the post’s commitment to community service, including paying tribute to Gold Star Mothers.
“You need someone who is dedicated and forceful, like Marcos, who has picked up the ball and carried it forward to make it a viable post,” Santos said. “The members are here to help others. It’s not for the members’ benefits, it’s for the members to help someone else outside the organization.”
Heading into their second year, post members vow to continue serving their community. For many, it’s a way to honor Vazquez and share his story with the Latino community.
“We really want to honor Jason’s legacy because he is one of our local community heroes, one of our Latino community heroes,” Torres said. “This is a perfect example of someone who was doing the right thing, taking the right steps, who was going to make an impact in his community. It’s important that people look at him as a beacon of hope. He had integrity, outstanding morals. And that is what we should strive to be.”
Santos sees Post 939 building on its success.
“It’s the greatest thing in the world to have heritage and cultural posts in a community,” he said. “It advances everyone’s mission and purposes. It is so great that this post has one year under its belt, the hardest year. Now they can look to the future, since they have gotten over the hump, as they continue to serve veterans and their community.”