South Florida man to accept Medal of Honor upgrade for his uncle’s valor in Korea

When President Barack Obama rights a historical wrong at the White House on Tuesday, South Florida strip club owner Joe Rodriguez will be standing in for his fallen uncle, accepting a Medal of Honor for the Korean War hero who he loved like a brother.

Rodriguez’s uncle, U.S. Army Pvt. Miguel Vera, is among 24 men who served in conflicts spanning World War II to Vietnam. Their heroism was overlooked, and they are now being retroactively awarded America’s highest award for valor.

Most of those two dozen recipients are Hispanic, and only three are alive. Tuesday’s ceremony is the culmination of a decade-long review of the military files of hundreds of Jewish and Hispanic veterans mandated by Congress “to ensure those deserving the Medal of Honor were not denied because of prejudice,” according to a White House statement.

Vera, born in Puerto Rico and killed in Korea 60 years ago, earned his medal for holding off enemy fire in Chorwon, Korea, at the bloody, bitter battle of “Old Baldy,” an act of selfless courage that let fellow GIs escape. He was 20.

But it’s also a quintessentially South Florida story: Vera’s now 73-year-old nephew, Rodriguez, is a veteran in his own right — a proud Marine who served at Guantánamo Bay during the Cuban Missile Crisis and went on to open the Cheetah Gentlemen’s Clubs in Palm Beach, Pompano Beach and Hallandale Beach.

Inside the Cheetahs each Nov. 10 — the anniversary of the founding of the Marine Corps — the staff rolls in a cake, the strippers stop dancing for a 30-minute celebration that, among other things, gives an award to the best dressed service member, who is invariably a Marine.

It was from the Cheetah that Rodriguez and an employee researched the story of the uncle who took him under his wing as a young boy, left Utuado, Puerto Rico, at age 18 for basic training on the mainland — and returned to a hero’s burial less than two years later.

And it was inside that club that Rodriguez got the call: President Obama was on the line telling him that the uncle he called “Nando” was earning an upgrade from the Distinguished Service Cross to the nation’s top honor.

“It sounded just like him. I was in shock,” Rodriguez recalled this week from inside his office at the Hallandale club while Daft Punk’s Get Lucky was vibrating through the walls.

As long as Rodriguez remembers, he said, his uncle “Nando” has always been an inspiration.

He was not yet 10 years old when his uncle left the island for the service. But he has long been proud of the private who earned the DSC for his valor on Sept. 21, 1952 in the battle of Old Baldy, a strategic ridge where the fighting was no less brutal than the more infamous Pork Chop Hill and Heartbreak Ridge.

Rodriguez described him as a slight, shy private who knew what to do on the last day of his life as an automatic rifleman with Company F of the 2nd Infantry Division’s 38th Infantry Regiment.

Someone will recite the story at the White House next week. As Rodriguez tells it, the private fell wounded and was being carried off the battlefield when he saw his fellow soldiers’ morale flagging.

“My uncle got off the stretcher, rallied the troops and said, ‘We’ve got to go,’ ” Rodriguez said, quoting accounts of how Vera led a terrifying charge up the hill. “There was mayhem, hand-to-hand combat, bayonet fighting,” he said.

Also automatic weapons and grenade fire, artillery and mortar barrages of such intensity that his platoon fell back, according to an account issued by the Department of the Army on April 29, 1953. Not Nando. “He selflessly remained behind to cover the withdrawal and, maintaining a determined stand, poured crippling fire into enemy emplacements,” according to his Distinguished Service Cross citation. “During this action he lost his life.”

Rodriguez recalls that, when his uncle was returned to Puerto Rico for burial, he was too horribly maimed for his mother to see.

Rodriguez said his staff research found a member of the platoon who offered an account of the private’s last sighting as beating a Chinese soldier with his helmet. “I think they got him with a grenade,” he said, adding. “They were so mad at him they chopped him up with a bayonet.”

Rodriguez credits his uncle’s sacrifice — “He wasn’t selfish. He was a guy who didn’t think about himself” — with his own subsequent Cold War service. As a child, Rodriguez says, he moved to New Jersey, enlisted in the Marines in 1958, left as a lance corporal in 1966 and subsequently did a three-year stint as a trainer of Green Berets with the Army Special Forces.

And he’s a philanthropist. His Rodriguez Charities has sponsored a golf tournament and other activities to donate more than $1 million, according to its own accounting. Recipients have included schools, breast cancer research, the Joe DiMaggio and Broward children’s hospitals and, of course, Toys for Tots, an annual USMC project.

Rodriguez has been to Santiago de Cuba to receive communion from the pope and next week, “I’m going to meet the president of the United States — me who came over here as a little kid with no shoes.”

It’s a rags-to-riches tale for the man who took the phone call from Obama inside his strip club whose website boasts “the hottest dancers” and offers “full nudity, full friction and a full liquor bar.”

For his part, Rodriguez didn’t mention where he was sitting. He said he mostly listened in awe as the president said thank you and invited him to the White House to receive the medal.

“It’s amazing that he took the time,” Rodriguez said, adding that in a subsequent call to spare everybody the embarrassment he mentioned his business to an Army liaison named Samantha Youngblood, who called to help coordinate his part of the ceremony.

“You do know what I do for a living?” he said he told her. “I have strip clubs.”

To which she replied, it made no difference.

Youngblood declined to answer a question from the Miami Herald about the exchange. “It absolutely does not matter; it’s not important to us at all,” said Troy Rolan Sr., a civilian Army spokesman, from the Pentagon on Friday. “It has nothing to do with the award.”

But the message has been received and plans continue apace.

This weekend, Rodriguez, his three sons and three Marine buddies were making the ultimate road-trip to Washington, D.C., for briefings, meetings and ceremonies where, 60 years after his death, Army Pvt. Miguel “Nando” Vera will join 3,463 other Medal of Honor winners spanning American history.

Rodriguez says the honor means that he will finally realize his dream of disinterring his uncle from a plot in Puerto Rico and relocating him to Arlington National Cemetery, the nation’s most hallowed ground.

As for the medal itself, Rodriguez says, the ceremony will illustrate something he’s known all along: “He was my hero always.”

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