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PLEASANT GROVE — The Veterans of Foreign Wars Timpanogos post has commissioned a memorial portrait to honor Pfc. Jose Valdez, a former Pleasant Grove resident and recipient of the Medal of Honor.
There’s just one problem: Only two photographs of Valdez exist.
Valdez joined the army at age 19 in 1944. Though he was born in New Mexico, he was living in Utah when he enlisted in the military at the Pleasant Grove recruiting station. As such, he is listed as a Utah recipient of the Medal of Honor.
Valdez was killed in Rosenkrantz, France, while covering five other soldiers during a German attack. After driving back a tank and killing three German soldiers, Valdez was shot in the stomach.
Despite the injury, Valdez continued to protect his fellow soldiers. All five others weathered the attack; Valdez died two weeks later from the wounds he sustained protecting them. For this, Valdez was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
“Through his valiant, intrepid stand and at the cost of his own life, (Pfc.) Valdez made it possible for his comrades to escape, and was directly responsible for repulsing an attack by vastly superior enemy forces,” the award’s citation reads.
Valdez is one of only five Utahns to receive the award, and the state’s only Hispanic recipient.
Kraig Thorne, senior vice commander of the local chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Utah County, said he believes Valdez’s achievement is greatly under-appreciated.
Growing up in Pleasant Grove, I didn't even know we had a Medal of Honor recipient from Utah County, let alone my own city.
–Kraig Thorne, VFW
“Growing up in Pleasant Grove, I didn’t even know we had a Medal of Honor recipient from Utah County, let alone my own city,” he said.
Thorne has been fighting for more than three years to earn Valdez the recognition Thorne believes he deserves. With the support of VFW, Thorne formed The Jose F. Valdez Medal of Honor Legacy committee, a small group of current and past Pleasant Grove residents devoted to honoring Valdez’s memory.
“We believe the story of Jose Valdez needs to be told. His bravery needs to be recognized,” said Carlos Aguilera, a Chilean-American and the committee’s executive secretary. “We want to help our citizens know that the greatest generation was made up of all the races represented in this country.”
In hopes of bringing Valdez more visibility, the committee has commissioned local artist Jon McNaughton to reconstruct a portrait of Valdez, uniformed and bearing the medal he did not live to wear.
McNaughton’s task was a complicated one. Historians have only found two photos of Valdez — not nearly enough to paint from, the artist said. In hopes of finding a likeness, McNaughton took to the Pleasant Grove High School yearbook. He found a live model in Jonathan Hernandez, a Mexican-American student.
“He’s not a dead ringer for Jose, but he’s close enough,” McNaughton said.
Hernandez said he was grateful for the opportunity to represent Valdez.
“I feel very proud,” Hernandez said at a news conference Monday. “He was a good soldier and a Hispanic person. I’m proud of that.”
McNaughton and the VFW committee will unveil the portrait in a small ceremony on Feb. 17 — the 70th anniversary of Valdez’s death. The event will be held at 5 p.m. in the Gold Room of the state Capitol and is expected to be attended by several military and political dignitaries, including Gov. Gary Herbert and Attorney General Sean Reyes.
After the ceremony, the portrait will hang in the halls of Pleasant Grove High, where Aguilera hopes it will inspire and sustain Hispanic students. Prints of the portrait will be given to junior high and high schools throughout the valley.
“In a way, it ties the (older) generations with our youth," Aguilera said. "We believe it is important for our youth to understand that we are all a part of this great nation, and bringing his portrait back to life after 70 years is a great way to remember that.”