HARLINGEN, RGV – State Rep. René Oliveira, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar and potential U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela have joined in the tributes to Rio Grande Valley veteran’s leader Arturo “Treto” Garza.

“I’m greatly saddened to read of the passing of Treto Garza, a Vietnam veteran who has worked so hard to bring a veteran’s hospital to the Valley. My condolences go out to his family and all the veterans who have worked closely with him,” said Oliveira, D-Brownsville, in a posting on his Facebook page.

“Treto fought for our great country then picked up the fight at home to try to ensure the best care for his fellow soldiers in the Valley. It was an honor to have known and worked with him. He will be deeply missed.”

Garza, a Vietnam War veteran and champion of a veteran’s hospital for the Valley, died late Wednesday afternoon at Valley Baptist Hospital. Garza was a former co-commander of the Veteran’s Alliance of the Rio Grande Valley and editor of the Rio Grande Guardian’s Veteran’s Voice section. He was 68.

Arturo 'Treto' Garza, 1944-2012.
Arturo ‘Treto’ Garza, 1944-2012.

“I express my deepest condolences to the family of Arturo “Treto” Garza on the passing of this true American patriot,” said Cuellar, D-Laredo. “The Rio Grande Valley not only has lost a veteran, but a great friend to all who knew him. His tenacity and relentless efforts to ensure that veterans in the Rio Grande Valley had access to the best health care possible was evident up until the time of his death.”

Vela, the Democratic nominee for U.S. Congress in District 34, said: “My most sincere condolences go out to the wife, family, friends, loved ones and fellow veterans of Treto Garza. Mr. Garza led the way for veterans’ rights in the Rio Grande Valley and he was a staunch supporter of building a VA hospital in South Texas.”

Vela said the opinion pieces and articles Garza wrote “told moving stories” about the need for a veterans’ hospital to serve the thousands of veterans living in the area.

“Treto believed in what he was doing and was always there to lend a helping hand to a fellow veteran,” Vela said. “I pray that he may rest in peace and that his family, friends, loved ones and fellow veterans can carry on his legacy of commitment to veterans and the community. We have lost a hero, a friend, community leader and activist who devoted his life to helping others. He will be missed dearly.”

In a statement issued Thursday morning, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn said his thoughts and prayers are with the Garza family.

“He will be remembered for his honorable service to our country, his fierce devotion to the veteran community in South Texas, and his tireless fight to improve health care services for veterans in the Rio Grande Valley,” Cornyn said. “My staff and I were privileged to have his thoughtful input on veterans’ issues for many years and his leadership in the Valley will be sorely missed.”

Garza’s family has announced funeral details. The funeral is being handled by Trinity Funeral Homes of Harlingen. The funeral home’s address is 102 East Harrison, Harlingen. It is on the corner of Harrison and 10th. Visitation takes place on Friday between 1 p.m. and 9 p.m. A rosary will take place at 7 p.m. on Friday. The funeral service will take place at Trinity at 10 a.m. on Saturday. Garza will be buried at Heavenly Grace Memorial Park in La Feria.

Fellow veterans and family members said that although Garza’s mind was as sharp and active as ever, his body had weakened over the past ten years. “It was the Agent Orange that got him,” said his wife Irene.

Many Valley veterans visited Valley Baptist on Wednesday to see their comrade one last time. They were fulsome in their praise.

“Treto Garza was more than a brother. He was an inspiration. He was a leader. He was fearless,” said Felix Rodriguez, a fellow Vietnam War veteran and member of the Texas Veteran’s Commission.

Rodriguez said he had known Garza since the late 1970s. “We both came out of the civil rights movement. I was working for Texas RioGrande Legal Aid. Treto was fighting for health clinics for the poor of the Rio Grande Valley. It is a cliché but in Treto’s case it was true: he fought the good fight.”

Family and friends did not expect Garza to die so suddenly. He had been visiting Valley Baptist regularly for foot surgery. On Monday, however, his blood pressure rose and he then suffered an aneurism causing his brain to swell. “The doctors gave him the best medicine to bring down the swelling but he did not make it,” said fellow veteran Mike Escobedo.

Escobedo said he will always be grateful for the tireless work Garza put in for veterans with a disability. “Treto knew how to write and how to navigate the VA system. I will always be grateful to him. He filed a claim for me for disability. He did all the paperwork. All I had to do was to sign where he told me to sign. He took my case under his wing. It was totally unselfish,” Escobedo said.

Garza was working on veteran’s issues right up until his death. On Sunday he penned a column for the Guardian titled “Veteranos… W T F U.” It was, naturally, about the VA hospital issue. (Click here to read the column) And, just before he went into hospital he asked colleagues to set up a teleconference for Thursday with staff in Sen. Cornyn’s office. Garza had confidence that Cornyn would help Valley veterans achieve what for many was their number one goal – a VA hospital for South Texas.

“A great warrior just passed away,” said fellow Vietnam War veteran Joe Ibarra. “Treto gave us a lot of hope and inspiration. He never gave up the fight for the veteran’s hospital. He fought and he led. He never let obstacles get in the way. He always moved forward. We will greatly, greatly, miss Treto. Semper Fi.”

Jose Maria Vasquez, commander of America’s Last Patrol, said Valley veterans kick started their campaign for a VA hospital with a march from the Valley to San Antonio in October 2005. He said the media recognition they received through that and subsequent marches never dimmed in part because of Treto Garza’s columns in the Guardian and his letters to the VA, elected officials and local newspapers.

“Treto Garza never gave up. He knew we could never give up our fight for the hospital. The best thing I can say about him is that he was one of us. He is going to be missed. He will be fighting for us in heaven,” Vasquez said.

Lydia Caballero coordinated press coverage for America’s Last Patrol and the various marches for a veteran’s hospital. She said that although she and Garza did not always see eye to eye on strategy, she never doubted his commitment.

“There is not another veteran I respected more than Treto. He is going to be sorely missed. I have no idea who could write for the Guardian or anybody else as well for our cause. He was not just a veteran’s activist. As a young man he worked very hard to get free clinics for the poor of the Valley,” Caballero said.

Placido Salazar, a member of America’s Last Patrol, said Garza was a “tireless warrior” in the effort to secure a “much-needed” VA hospital for the Valley.

“I hope that recognition of his sacrifices by politicians, are followed-up with renewed action and results, and not just more words, so that surviving veterans will benefit from Treto’s efforts. That would be the ultimate tribute and honor for Treto’s family,” Salazar said.

“Treto and I did not always see eye-to-eye, although we were fighting for the same goal. Then again, voicing our differences of opinion is one of the rights which every warrior served our country for. May he Rest in Peace.”

Rio Grande Guardian Editor Steve Taylor said Valley veterans owe a great deal of gratitude to Garza for keeping the VA hospital issue front and center. “Treto was persistent. He knew what the goal was. He came to us in 2007 and asked if he could start writing a column and he never stopped writing. Through his columns he kept the politicians accountable,” Taylor said.