Honor for hero draws protest

Renaming post office upsets some in Savage

July 30, 2000|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,SUN STAFF

It was a moment that appeared to have nothing but happy endings attached to it.

Alfred Rascon, American hero, one of fewer than 150 living recipients of the Medal of Honor, sat in the gallery of the U.S. House of Representatives with his wife, Carol, on July 17 and listened while elected officials from all corners of the country stood and applauded.

They were cheering because a bill to name the Savage post office after Rascon was about to pass the House. It was a proud moment, said Carol Rascon, one she and her husband, a Vietnam veteran, could never have dreamed of.

The same could not be said for a number of Savage residents.

"I feel like someone has kicked me in the stomach," said Janet Arnold, who worked as a mail carrier in Savage for 20 years.

"This has made me just sick. Mr. Rascon did a wonderful thing and is a wonderful person, but he doesn't live here. We have very deep roots here. This is our community, and we feel the post office should be named for the community."

Savage, which lies in southeastern Howard County, is the kind of town where a handshake and a smile are as important as a hard-earned dollar, residents say. It's a place where people stop to chat with strangers outside the senior citizens center, and a place where neighbors sometimes grow up together.

But a number of residents said they felt "betrayed" when they weren't consulted about the proposal by Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, the 6th District Republican who sponsored the bill. When residents of Savage voiced their concerns, the Rascons said they felt uncomfortable and confused. They do not pick up their mail in Savage, but they live in North Laurel, three miles from the post office in Savage.

The bill has not yet reached the Senate, but if it passes the post office would then become the Alfred Rascon Post Office.

"When my husband volunteered for the war years ago, he wasn't even a resident of this country," said Carol Rascon, whose husband was born in Mexico. "But he did it as an American, not as a member of a community. I feel this was something done to show appreciation for veterans in this country. This isn't something we sought out. We feel very uncomfortable."

That's the last thing residents of Savage wanted, said Del. Shane Pendergrass, who represents and is supporting the town.

"Mr. Rascon is a man I admire greatly," Pendergrass said. "The last thing we want to do is embarrass the family. This is a community with a sense of pride and spirit. The town likes its identity. Unfortunately, Mr. Rascon has no relationship to the community of Savage."

Said Bill Waff, a Savage resident: "What upsets us is there was no liaison with anyone in the community. No one ever spoke with our local politicians to see how we felt. It's not that the man shouldn't be honored, it's that it shouldn't be here."

These days, Rascon is inspector general for the Selective Service System in Arlington, Va. But in 1966, he was a 20-year-old soldier in Vietnam. While walking a trail with his platoon in a jungle northwest of Saigon, Rascon and his fellow soldiers were surrounded by enemy fire.

Rascon dragged a dying soldier to safety and retrieved a machine gun and 400 rounds about to fall into enemy hands. Several times he used his body to shield fellow soldiers from grenade blasts, then treated the wounded and directed the evacuation before passing out from blood loss.

He received the Medal of Honor 34 years later, when President Clinton presented it to him in February, saying "thickets of red tape" had kept Rascon from receiving it.

Alfred Rascon "is a true American hero in every sense of the term," Bartlett said. "His service to our country is more deserving than the attention it has received.

"He did not seek a post office to be redesignated after him. This was my decision because I believe strongly that our children need to be educated and our adults reminded of those who have paid such a large price for our freedom."

Finger-pointing goes in both directions.

Pendergrass says the situation could have been avoided had Bartlett contacted the community with his intentions. "I told him he could have avoided embarrassing the Rascons if he'd done his homework first," Pendergrass said.

Bartlett said he felt it was enough that the resolution was co-sponsored by the entire Maryland delegation to the House and the members of the Hispanic Caucus. The Savage post office, he said, is a federal building and does not fall under the jurisdiction of the state.

Criticism of the community has not fallen on deaf ears.

"We've spent a hell of a lot of time agonizing over this," Waff said. "We really don't want to embarrass the Rascon family. We're even trying to think of some other way to honor him.

"Maybe they could name the senior citizen center after him. But we want to keep our sense of community by keeping our post office's name."

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