Featured Veteran: Garifuna Rising
by Gonzalo Duran
This week’s featured Veteran is Petty Officer 2nd Class Edson Arzu of the United States Navy (USN). Edson was born in Guatemala but raised in the Bronx, New York. He currently works at Renaissance Healthcare as a Human Resource Recruiter, the President of Garifuna Veterans of America (GVOA), and a 3rd year medical student. Edson has spent years trying to bring recognition to the heroic efforts of the Garifuna people in the Armed Forces community. To many people, this is probably the first time they are seeing the word “Garifuna” but the culture is rich in food, music, dance, and language.
Edson is a Garifuna. The Garifuna people are descendants from Africa that were brought to the Caribbean in the 18th century and who were then forced to settle on the coast of Belize, Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua. From there many have migrated to the United States over the years. The populations of Garifuna people in Central America are now estimated at 300,000 with an additional 100,000 in the U.S. The current classification on race and ethnicity makes it difficult for the Garifuna people to categorize themselves, which makes it even harder to locate them through conventional methods. Fortunately, Edson has had great luck and an aggressive approach to his goal of finding fellow Garifuna in the U.S.
At the age of nine, Edson came to the U.S. with his family in 1992 to search for a better life. After high school, Edson joined the USN as a Hospital Corpsman for its educational benefits. He served ten years with deployments to Afghanistan in 2005 and Iraq in 2003. While in the USN, Edson met two Garifuna members on board his first ship and then throughout his career. This sparked his interest in how many other Garifuna Veterans have served in the military but the process of locating them was hard because they did not register as such because of the limited racial categories for identification. While searching, Edson was able to find veteran identification records of former Tuskegee Airmen from World War II that identified them as Garifuna.
However, during his research he questioned, “Where are the hero’s recognition?”
After Edson’s service ended, he faced the hardships that many veterans do but his desire for Garifuna pride burned strong within him. Edson had participated and joined local Garifuna Coalitions but felt that representation for veterans was lacking. That is where his fiancée, Carmen Miranda, came in. Once settled in and stable, Carmen suggested that Edson start GVOA and use his research to award veterans he had found over the years. At first Edson was hesitant but she reassured him it would work out because, “everyone loves a veteran”, and within a month they were holding their Garifuna Veterans of America 1st Annual Core Values Award Ceremony.
The award ceremony is dedicated to active duty military and veterans that have excelled in their missions, with the desire to award all heroes’ who have served. Here is the progression of the awards ceremony over the last three years:
2013 – was held at a local senior center with 120 attendees, five honorees, and local elected officials sending certificates of merits.
2014 – was held at the Bronx Veterans Hospital with the support of the Minority Veteran Representative as a sponsor, over 200 attendees, five honorees and now elected officials presenting awards. It also included the cadet corps band and Garifuna band.
2015 – will be held at Portsmouth Naval Hospital Base in Virginia with the capacity of 350, five honorees, and elected officials along with military representatives presenting awards. Now with official sponsors there will be a dinner banquet, a military band, and extra amenities.
This year’s award ceremony will be held on November 8th from 3:00 pm – 6:00 pm, in Portsmouth, Virginia and is free to attend. There will be a charter bus taking attendees at the price of $80 per person from the Bronx to the event. Those on the charter bus will get a tour of the base and ships along with breakfast and dinner. Reservations need to be made before October 31st.
I asked Edson why he is holding the ceremony in Virginia, he responded with, “This location was suggested by two of the honorees, they petitioned to the base commander and were approved. Not only do they have a large Garifuna population but this will signify to the military and active duty community to take notice of our presence.”
Edson uses many methods in his endless pursuit of locating Garifuna members in the military and veterans who have served. He boasts about his Facebook page, which has over 200 members of current active military and veterans of Garifuna descendants. This gives him the ability to locate more across the nation while at the same time sharing information regarding employment and events.
In three short years Edson has made a huge impact on the Veteran and Garifuna community. With its modest population numbers, keeping the traditions and culture alive has been a struggle. To show the impact of the Garifuna people within the Armed Forces has been a mission within itself. In the lead of Garifuna progression there are many but within the Veteran and Military community, Edson stands alone.
If you would like to contact Edson for any information on Garifuna Veterans, he can be reached at email@example.com or through the Garifuna Veterans of America Facebook page.
Devil Dog USA Incorporated
Gonzalo Duran is CEO of Devil Dog USA Incorporated, a non-profit in the Bronx that focuses on veterans. Duran is a Veteran Columnist for The Bronx Chronicle.