Johnny Reus is a 93-year-old, Purple-Heart-awarded combat veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars, who trained top-notch soldiers throughout the Americas and Europe for the U.S. Army. But right now, what he’s concerned about the most is running for a seat on the council of his senior living community in Cutler Bay.
He speaks about the lack of outdoor activities in the East Ridge community with the same authority as he does about historic operations he witnessed on the battlefield as a soldier for the 65th Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army, also known as the Puerto Rican Borinqueneers.
On Monday, Reus was one of several veterans at his South Florida community who was honored for his service for over 20 years in the military. He is also one of the estimated 1,000 Borinqueneers, the last desegregated unit of the U.S. Army, who are still alive today. Though they have lacked in recognition for years, in 2014, this group of soldiers gained national visibility when they were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for their role in U.S. wars since Puerto Rico became a territory of the United States in 1898.
As the curious son of an Episcopalian priest in 1920s Puerto Rico, Reus grew up romanticizing war. He transported himself to these scenes by reading stories about how Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great led large armies that built empires.
“It was all man-to-man combat, no artillery or anything. I wondered, ‘How can a human being survive in a battlefield?’ And that was my main question. As I grew up, I became more and more interested,” Reus said.
He joined the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, or ROTC, when he was a college student at the University of Puerto Rico, earning $29 a month, which was more than enough to cover his annual $60 tuition and a regular tailor who would iron the pleats on his uniform pants.
The ROTC led to a 23-year military career, which included serving in the Army Special Forces, parachuting into dozens of special operations and rescue missions in Korea and Vietnam.
To replace soldiers in a depleted army following World War II in 1950, Reus was sent off with thousands of other young men from Puerto Rico to fight in the Korean War as a second lieutenant. The crew stopped in Panama to gather additional troops before heading out to sea on a month-long trip overseas, surviving a typhoon, and finally docking in Japan.
It was his first chance to be a combat soldier. As summer faded and the fight dragged into the winter months, Reus and his fellow soldiers were unprepared for the below-zero temperatures and the overnight attacks from Chinese troops fighting alongside the North Koreans.
“To survive an artillery attack, you don’t know where that projectile is coming from ... You kind of sense the direction of how the artillery projectiles are hitting the ground,” he recalled. “So as you’re moving, attacking, you try to stay ahead of the artillery as much as you can.”
Many of them survived with thermal socks and boots they received by air supply, while learning to outrun artillery that hit the ground around him like lethal raindrops. In 1951, about a month before he was set to return from Korea, Reus was hit by an artillery shell on his left thigh from an enemy unit that was hiding on the side of a riverbank. It didn’t injure his bone, but hit an artery.
“We call it in military terms a ‘million-dollar wound,’” said Reus, who had to undergo medical treatment.
After serving in Korea, Reus was stationed in Hawaii, where he trained high school-aged soldiers to defend the main island of Oahu, which was on high alert after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
His service in Vietnam is difficult for Reus to remember.
“They build towns underground in Vietnam, cities underground, hospitals underground. We were not prepared for that sort of thing,” Reus recalled.
In the ‘90s, once he retired from the military, he toured the 50 states in an RV along with his late wife before finally settling in South Florida in 2005.
Though he says he feels proud of being a veteran and the benefits he has received since retiring from the military, he recognizes it is not the same reality for many of those who have come back from the Iraq War, who faced a gruesome warfare and suffered through post-traumatic stress disorder.
“It tears me up, really. It’s devastating. And so many of them need so much help. I know there are a lot of people that are helping but there’s some of them that don’t come out. They’re too ashamed, I guess, to come out and say, ‘I need help,’” Reus said. “I wish I could do more.
“I think [the U.S.] is the only country in the world that has such great ability to exist in every sense of the word. ...There is so much more that we can do,” he said. “I’m proud of being who I am and I’m proud of being an American.”