Highlighting the Life of a Hispanic-American Vietnam Veteran

September 10, 2013 04:29 PM

1st Lt. Leanne Hedgepeth, 17th Training Wing deputy chief
of public affairs, interviews Tony Graf. Graf is the grandson of
two Mexican grandmothers and served 20 years in the military.

 Photo courtesy of Airman 1st Class Joshua Edwards


Tony Graf, Vietnam War veteran and Hispanic-American, came to Goodfellow Aug. 29 to share his story for Hispanic Heritage month.

Hispanic Heritage Month begins Sept. 15 and runs through Oct. 15. It is a time to recognize the contributions that Hispanic and Latino Americans have given to the U.S. and to celebrate the Hispanic and Latino-American's culture.

Hispanic Heritage Month originated in 1968 as a week instead of a month. President Lyndon B. Johnson proclaimed the week that included Sept. 15 and Sept. 16 as Hispanic Heritage Week. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan changed it to a month long.

LBJ chose Sept. 15 as the start because five Latin American countries; Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua celebrate their independence on that day. He also chose Sept. 16 in honor of Mexico's independence day. Chile and Belize also celebrate their independence Sept. 16.

Graf was born in the city of Bergs Mill, Texas, in a predominantly Hispanic community. He is the grandson of two Mexican grandmothers and grew up speaking Spanish.

Graf said he has memories of Hispanic culture dating back to his childhood. One of his grandmothers was of Mexican-Indian dissent and he recalls her taking him outside to pick plants to make teas. His grandmother traditionally made tamales and a Mexican pastry during Christmas.

He said he regrets not paying more attention to his culture because it would have made his family proud.

Graf left his family to enlist in the Air Force because he wanted to travel overseas. He joined in 1960 and dedicated 20 years of service, 18 months of which were spent in service at Goodfellow.

Graf was a career finance and budget troop who was stationed in Vietnam for a year.

Graf was excited to go to Vietnam. Since the day he enlisted, he had wanted to go overseas he said. The news of him going to Vietnam was just what he wanted, but he later realized he didn't know exactly what that meant.

"I was happy," he said. "I did not know what Vietnam was; I didn't pay attention to the news."

Graf said the war environment was very scary especially when you had to try to go to sleep hearing mortar fire. Graf said his comrades helped him through the difficult times.

"We were always finding ways to get into something," he said.

Graf also received support from his grandmother, throughout his time in Vietnam he continued to communicate with his grandmother; she would send him letters in Spanish.

While in the Air Force, Graf never experienced discrimination because of his Hispanic heritage.

"Even with my accent I didn't get treated differently," Graf said. "It never affected my promotions and I was recognized for my hard work. I think people discriminate against other groups because they do not understand them; whether it be the way they look or talk etc."

Graf was proud to serve his country in Vietnam, but that changed when he came home. Upon his return from Vietnam he was greeted by protestors at the airport who refused to let him and his comrades proceed to where they were going. Graf's group tried to make their way through the protestors but security threatened to take them to jail if they pushed the protestors.

Throughout the remainder of his career he sought assignments oversees. For many years Graf denied being a Vietnam veteran.

Upon his retirement, the Veterans of Foreign Wars denied him entry, saying they did not need him around their organization because he was in Vietnam. Graf was determined to get in the VFW and knew their closed mindedness would end as the next generation came to join.

He not only made it into the organization but rose through leadership ultimately becoming the commander.

Today our government believes in standing against discrimination from the highest ranks to the lowest enlisted U.S. President Barack Obama said "Discrimination cannot stand -- not on account of color or gender; how you worship or who you love. Prejudice has no place in the United States of America."

Goodfellow will host a Hispanic Heritage Month open house at the Event Center Oct. 3. The open house features art displays from Vino Dipinte art gallery, cultural displays, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu demonstration, and a Latin music and dance demonstration.