Jorge Otero-Barreto, one of the most heavily decorated Vietnam War veterans, received the Distinguished Member of the 502nd Infantry Regiment award from Lt. Gen. Joseph Anderson during a ceremony Friday at Fort Buchanan, Puerto Rico.
Retired Lt. Col. John Hay, who served with Otero-Barreto, was instrumental in pushing for the recognition. Otero-Barreto was a platoon sergeant in the 82nd Airborne Division and the 101st Airborne, serving with the U.S. Army from 1959 to 1970. He is credited with more than 200 missions.
Members are selected based on their honorable service and loyalty during wartime or peace.
“John Hay really wanted to do this for Jorge,” said Ildefonso Colon Jr., an American Legion National Executive Committeeman from Puerto Rico. “Over the years, he has attributed so much of his success to this man (Jorge), not only his success but actually being alive today because of Jorge.”
Otero-Barreto thanked the Army and his fellow veterans, notably Hay, for the award. He also retold his story, which includes multiple Silver Stars and dozens of other awards, including five Purple Hearts — the first of which he received after getting caught in a bear trap in Vietnam.
“John Hay is one of my greatest friends ever,” Otero-Barreto said. “I don’t know why we got together, maybe it was by accident, or God put us together. He was a mentor to me, and I was a mentor to him, too. He always led from the front, never behind.”
At the ceremony, Anderson spoke highly of Otero-Barreto, citing his leadership and skill on the battlefield as reasons for the honor.
“Anyone who works around him or for him speaks volumes of leadership as a non-commissioned officer, which is our backbone,” said Anderson, who served as infantry commander of the 502nd Regiment from 2002 to 2004. “Of course, what he did in Vietnam serving with so many different units (was also considered). And from what he experienced coming home from Vietnam — getting spat on — having to get through all that and be bigger than all that. By all accounts based on what he has done, he should be dead five or six times over, but there he is standing there. He’s a lucky man.”
At Fort Campbell, Ky., home of the 502nd Infantry Regiment, there is a wall of honor that displays plaques of all the award recipients.
“There are a handful of World War II veterans, a handful of Vietnam War veterans and now Jorge who is being added to the wall,” Colon said. “This is a perpetual thing — his picture and information are going to be there forever. This regiment, these young soldiers are going to be motivated by seeing Jorge and the others and what they have done in the past. He has distinguished himself not only as an American, but as a Puerto Rican-American. And today, we honor him.”
While Otero-Barreto left the Army decades ago, he continues to serve. He is the commander of Post 14 in Vega Baja, Puerto Rico, and also handles service officer duties.
“To us, he’s our hero,” Colon said. “If Michael Jordan were to walk in that door, I might shake his hand. But my hero is right here. In Puerto Rico, there is not a whole lot of fanfare for veterans. But in the veteran community, we know and honor this man because we know what he has done and what he continues to do. Every Wednesday he is at his post during service officer work. And if he has to go to Washington, to fight for a case, he will. He’s done it before.”
Anderson categorizes the recognition as overdue.
“We all owe this to the Vietnam generation,” he said. “If other people know people like Jorge, they should contact their leaders in the military and say, ‘Hey, we didn’t do this the right way back when. Could we fix it?’ This is something Jorge and others should have received when they left the regiment. He’s getting it now, many years later.”