During the years of World War II, it was European immigrants and descendants who took arms for the United States to defend the country that welcomed them with open arms.
Special Section: America Remembers
In the 2000s, as the war against terror rages on around the world, an overwhelming majority of enlistees are now Latinos, many of whom return from war with devastating wounds.
Corporal Wesley Leon Barrientos is one of those Latinos.
We first heard about Wesley from our friends in Kern County. Truth is, everyone there seems to know about Wesley. Unfortunately, it took risking his life to become a household name.
"I was expecting to be dead," he said, as he sat at the Bakersfield Veterans Memorial outside the Amtrak station on Truxton. He helped raise the final funds to get the memorial built to honor his local comrades who didn't survive the various wars of history.
It was watching the events of 9/11 unfold that made Wesley realize his mission. Born in Guatemala, he came to the United States with his family looking for a better life.
"I wanted to do something," he said, "so innocent Americans wouldn't die like that ever again."
As soon as he graduated high school and turned 18, he enlisted into the U.S. Army. He served three tours of duty in Iraq, and earned three purple hearts; the last of which came after his Humvee was hit by a roadside bomb on December 20, 2007.
"When it detonated," he said, "it took my left leg right off the bat. On the other, it took my foot and damaged my calf."
Wesley was only 23 years old. He woke up in a hospital in Germany. A nurse had to explain to him what he had lost, but he was thankful just to be alive. He spent 18 months at Walter Reed Army Hospital before finally returning home to a hero's welcome in Bakersfield on May 28, 2009.
As the wars continue, more and more American men and women in uniform are coming home as survivors, although many come home with very serious wounds. A larger proportion of those wounded in battle are Latinos.
"As Latinos, we want to do our part for this country," said Sargeant First Class Osley Chirinos, a U.S. Army Recruiter from Compton. He says since 9/11, an overwhelming number of Latinos have signed on mainly for the benefits they receive once their tour of duty is complete.
The Veteran's Association Hospital in Los Angeles is helping many with prosthetic limbs, like Wesley.
His personal trainer has taken it upon himself to help, too. Eric Mahanke is a trainer at the Terrio EDGE in Bakersfield.
"We've had to adjust his workout regimine because of his disability," he said, "a lot of exercises use your legs for balance and without his, we've had to modify his workout."
But Wesley keeps his optimism high.
“It was my honor to serve my country," he said, "And not having legs right now, those are just details in life. There’s more to life than just legs. This is the country that welcomed me with open arms, gave me an education, everything I needed to make a better person of myself. I've been given another chance at life, and I'll live life to the fullest."
Published at 9:17 AM PDT on Sep 7, 2011