Honoring the Life and Legacy of Ben Blaz

Yesterday the Honorable Vicente “Ben” Blaz, a man who I have affectionately known as “The General” for many years, passed away. I feel fortunate to have visited him in the hospital this week and shared stories and memories of his life with his family. And what an amazing life it was.

BenBlaz2004.jpgWhile many will write about his impressive accomplishments as both a Chamorro and an American patriot (see here, here, and here), one of the signs of a great person is the impact they have in shaping the lives of others.  To this I can speak first hand.  I am blessed to say the General has been a friend and mentor over the last ten years.  But more than all of that he has been an inspiration.

It is safe to say that We the People Project would not exist but for the General’s inspiration.  Long before I knew the General, his writings had already profoundly effected me.  In college, I discovered his 1991 Letter to the New Times titled “Guam: Equal in War, but not in Peace,” which outlined the grave injustices associated with denying residents of U.S. territories and the District of Columbia full enjoyment of the right to vote.  Each year on Veterans Day, I make it a point to re-read the essay and consider the lessons it teaches, lessons that were drawn from the General’s deep well of knowledge and personal experience.  As nearly 600 Guam soldiers return home from defending democracy in Afghanistan, his words are as true today as ever.  I’ve included his essay in its entirety below.

The essay’s words have only gained a greater meaning as I have come to know the General over the last ten years.  My most vivid memories of the General come from the stories he tells.  Whether he was sharing the gripping details of his war-time experience in a packed congressional hearing room or whispering a simple anecdote at a social function, he always had a way of cutting to the heart of things.  He carried with him at all times a special dignity, empathy, and knowing sense of humor.

As I began developing ideas for a new organization to advocate on behalf of residents of U.S. territories and the District of Columbia, the General and his letter to the New York Times have never been far from my thoughts.  Naturally, the General was the first person I asked to serve on our Advisory Board as a founding member.  His advice and counsel directly influenced everything from the name of our website (www.equalrightsnow.org) to our slogan “Equal Rights, Wherever You Live.”  His words of encouragement and support, even as his health declined, have been a constant gift.

The General leaves behind an incredible legacy.  I feel honored to be carrying forward on the path towards equality that he first blazed.

May God Bless General Blaz.  My thoughts and prayers are with his family at this difficult time.

General, Si Yu’us Ma’ase. 

New York Times, October 19, 1991

Guam: Equal in War, but Not in Peace

To the Editor:

I applaud "Free the Government's Plantation" (editorial, Oct. 6), which called for statehood for the District of Columbia. In essence, you seem to argue that simple justice requires that the legitimate desires of the people of the District for self-determination be met. I agree wholeheartedly.

I had just finished writing a message for the veterans' organizations in my Congressional district (Guam) in which I referred to two young Guamanians who had lost their lives fighting for America during Operation Desert Storm. I mentioned further that Guam's tradition of service to the United States has seen it -- in both the Korean conflict and the Vietnam War -- suffer more casualties on a per capita basis than any other American community.

Our casualties of war go far beyond those who have died in uniform. As the only American civilian population held by the enemy during World War II, the atrocities and daily humiliations of that time are burned forever into our psyches. Yet the loyalty and love my people feel for the United States remains unabated.

I can attest to this because first as a 13-year-old forced laborer during World War II and later serving in both the Korean conflict and the Vietnam War during the course of a 30-year marine career, I have seen the testimony of their faith in the United States written with their blood.

Yet the people of Guam -- Americans all -- remain second-class citizens. Like the people of the District of Columbia, they are denied the fundamental rights afforded their counterparts elsewhere. At least the 23d Amendment gave the people of the District the right to vote for President. We on Guam were not.

Ironically, American expatriates enjoy more rights than their fellow citizens living in the District and in the territories. Through the absentee ballot, they remain fully enfranchised while, with the exception of the Presidential vote, the people of the District share with their counterparts in the territories the dubious status of being absentees in their native land.

The inequities of Guam's current status are perhaps best highlighted by this simple fact. An American citizen living on Guam is disenfranchised from voting in Federal elections. In that regard, he has no more rights than a green-card holder. Should he, however, fly to California or Hawaii and establish residency, he miraculously gains all the rights of citizenship. He can be enfranchised by an airline ticket. And he can be disenfranchised by a ticket as well, should he return to his birthplace.

Currently, Guam is seeking to forge a closer union with the United States through the adoption of commonwealth status. When it does so, it will mark the first time in the almost 100 years that Guam has been an American territory that the people will have determined for themselves what their relationship with the Federal Government should be.

Yet even when Guam achieves commonwealth status, the Federal Government will not give us the same constitutional rights enjoyed by our brothers and sisters in the states. We still will not have the Presidential vote; our delegate will still lack a vote on the House floor. Sadly, an old saying on Guam remains as true now as ever: We are equal in war, but not in peace. BEN BLAZ Member of Congress, Guam Washington, Oct. 8, 1991

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