Tony Zapata can often be seen around the community in his military hat or full uniform. He stands tall and proud.
The 69-year-old Boyle Heights resident served his country in Vietnam and now spends his time as the commander of Veterans for Foreign Wars Post 4696 in East Los Angeles. He leads both the Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day celebrations at Cinco Puntos in Boyle Heights.
Zapata comes from a family with a long history of military service. One of his grandfathers served in World War l. His father and two brothers served in World War ll. Two uncles served in Korea, and a son served in Kuwait.
In his work with veterans today, he comes across the young and old, as well as those struggling with drug and alcohol addictions, homelessness and other issues, such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Recently, Zapata helped get an affordable housing project for veterans in Boyle Heights, the first of its kind here. It is scheduled to open in the fall.
Boyle Heights Beat reporter Sylvester Foley spoke to Zapata about his inspiration and his work in the community. The interview has been edited for space and clarity.
BHB: Can you explain what some of your responsibilities are as a Veteran of Foreign Wars commander?
Zapata: We ensure that we have rehabilitation of the nation’s disabled veterans, and needy veterans. We assist families of deceased servicemen and women to make sure [they] are taken care of.
In this community, which is an immigrant community, I also promote what I call Americanism through education. I speak to the schools in the neighborhood about patriotism – what Memorial Day stands for, what Veteran’s Day stands for and the 4th of July.
BHB: Why is teaching the community what these events stand for important to you?
Zapata: Not many people are aware of what these days stand for. It’s not just another day off for a barbecue or picnic. I would like them to be recognized. On Memorial Day, take a moment throughout the day and think of these men and women who have given their lives for this country.
BHB: How did your personal experiences both during the war and after make you want to help other veterans?
Zapata: Vietnam was a very unpopular war. We were not treated like the veterans are treated today. When I flew back from Vietnam to Sacramento, the demonstrations against the war were going on. We were called names, and I couldn’t understand why.
BHB: What are some of the obstacles returning veterans face today?
Zapata: The system right now is flooded with young men coming back, and it’s hard to get into some of these programs. I always try to get the guys that need their medical [benefits] at the head of the line. And jobs are hard to find right now.
BHB: What are some of the issues that come up during your monthly meetings at the VFW?
Zapata: Veterans are our priority. We are going to help every veteran that we can. There are homeless veterans we work with. When a homeless veteran needs help, we refer them to the Veterans Benefits Administration in either downtown or West Los Angeles. They’re screened, and if they want to get help, they are told where to go and what to do.
BHB: Do you think the problem is that veterans don’t know where to get help, or is it that they just don’t want it, or don’t want to reach out?
Zapata: Veterans know where to get help, especially now. Before you leave the service, there’s a counselor to talk to, and they give you information. It’s mostly Vietnam veterans who are the ones living under bridges. They know about the Veterans Administration, but with housing, there’s a wait, and some of the veterans that I’ve spoken to say it takes too long,
BHB: Speaking of housing, can you tell us a little about the new affordable housing for veterans in Boyle Heights?
Zapata: I worked with East La Community Corporation (ELACC). I was on the committee that was responsible for the 32 units that we’re putting up in the neighborhood. I was involved with the program, the funding and the construction part of it. The apartments are for veterans that are on a pension and disabled. They should be completed sometime in October or November.
BHB: There’s often a lot of military recruiting that goes on in low-income neighborhoods, and young people enlist because of lack of opportunities or education. How do you feel about that?
Zapata: I stress education. I talk to kids in high school about an education, about going to college, even community college. Then if they decide to go into the military, they have a degree and become a leader. Then you can become an officer, and it’s different.
Observing Memorial Day in Boyle Heights
Veterans, friends and families will take shifts standing guard starting Sunday, May 25 for the 67th annual Memorial Day 24-hour Vigil at the Mexican American All Wars Memorial at Cinco Puntos. The event will close with a public ceremony on Monday from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. The All Wars Mexican Memorial is located at the intersection of Lorena, Indiana, and Cesar Chavez Ave.