Step by step

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Kelly Goonan
  • 920th Rescue Wing Public Affairs

A 920th Rescue Wing Airman recently accepted a Filipino Veterans of World War II Congressional Gold Medal in posthumous recognition of her late grandfather’s military service.

Master Sgt. Janet Muñoz,  301st Squadron Medical Element non-commissioned officer in charge, received the award during a March 2021 live stream event in honor of Isabelo Leano Viernes, a naturalized American citizen and decorated U.S. Army Soldier who left behind a legacy of service carried on today through each of his grandchildren.

“I never had the chance to meet him because he passed away the year I was born,” Muñoz said. “But had it not been for his service to the United States, he would not have been able to petition for all four of his children to become United States citizens.”

Following the Spanish-American War, the U.S. Army recruited native Filipinos as soldiers and scouts to help with the occupation of the Philippine Islands. Anyone who served in the war efforts as part of the United States military would become a naturalized citizen.

“He knew service to his home country could mean a better life for his family,” Muñoz said. “But I don’t think he knew he would become a citizen at the time he chose to serve.”

Although Viernes, a 33-year career technical sergeant never lived in the United States, he fought for it in both major world wars as an infantry sergeant in D Company, 45th Infantry Regiment.

Formerly a rice farmer from a small, poverty-stricken Philippine town, Viernes was a U.S. Forces service member in 1941 under U.S. Gen. Douglas McArthur, when the Japanese invaded the Philippines.

There, Viernes fought in the Battle of Bataan, in which he surrendered along with 75,000 other Filipino and American Soldiers on April 9, 1942.

Taking on more prisoners of war scattered throughout the peninsula than they anticipated, the Imperial Japanese Army ordered the surrendered troops to march to Bataan’s east coast to a railway in San Fernando, Pampanga, for imprisonment at Camp O’Donnell.

Throughout the grueling trek known as the Bataan Death March, Japanese troops forced the beleaguered POWs to walk the full 66-miles. Most POWs were already battle worn and had difficulties keeping up in the tropical heat with little to no water.

Viernes miraculously survived and upon release from Camp O’Donnell in September 1942 reunited with his family and took a break in his service before rejoining U.S. Army forces in 1945. He continued to serve in various Philippine Scout Detachments until his retirement.

Viernes selfless service paved the way for his family to become U.S. citizens and, with the hope of a better future them, he tirelessly petitioned for each of his children to leave the Philippines and start a new life in the United States.

“My mother and father were the last to come to the states,” Muñoz recounted. “The expense to move was crippling. My parents had to leave my siblings behind, in the care of my grandparents until she and my father could save enough money to bring them, one by one, to join them in Baltimore, Maryland.”

As an Airman serving in today’s force and directly contributing to the 920th RQW’s overall mission to execute military rescue operations and deny exploitation of isolated personnel, Muñoz knows the same drive and dedication that led her grandfather to success is in her DNA.

“Each one of us has a story based in part on choices, fortune, and perseverance,” Muñoz said. “I honor my grandfather’s sacrifices and legacy with my commitment to family and my Airmen each day.”