Life of Service

Veteran ensures sacrifices are remembered

By Jessica Laskey
November 2021

Phil Rios lives by four values: honor, discipline, clean teeth and an even cleaner shave. The last two may seem incongruous, but Rios knows they can be a matter of life and death.

As a combat veteran of the U.S. Army Military Police, Rios was responsible for keeping his squad safe under dangerous conditions in Vietnam, the Persian Gulf and Korea.

“When your base is hit and you put on your (gas) mask, you can get hit with some serious halitosis,” Rios says. “I always told my squad to brush your teeth and make sure you shave for a secure (mask) fit. My squad had the freshest breath ever.”

Hygiene aside, Rios has spent his life taking care of people around him, whether in his 43-year career with the postal service, 26 years in the military, many years as a Sacramento County voting precinct officer or nearly 30 years with the California Mexican American Veterans Memorial Foundation, which he helped found.

“My father was instrumental in inspiring me to get involved and do the work, particularly in politics,” says Rios, who was raised with 10 siblings by his father, a U.S. Navy veteran, and mother at 14th Avenue and Stockton Boulevard. “My dad would tell me, ‘Mijo, in the Navy in World War II, my weapon was a .30 caliber. Now, our weapon is to vote. If you don’t vote, don’t complain.’”

As a Sacramento City College student, Rios was drafted into Vietnam. He became an MP who escorted fellow soldiers caught absent without leave, which was a “clash of conscience” for the 19-year-old who protested the war.

Back in civilian life, he realized he missed the “camaraderie, unity and integrity” of the military and joined the Army Reserves in 1974. “I went from being a hippie to being a veteran,” Rios says.

After serving in the National Guard as an MP escort and on security teams during natural disasters, he pulled three tours in the Korean Demilitarized Zone and 14 months in the Persian Gulf War, earning a Bronze Star in 1991. Rios returned to Sacramento to figure out what kind of life he wanted.

The Bronze Star was “the biggest curse” when Rios wanted to return to a civilian existence “in the background.” Reliving the event that earned the medal triggered PTSD. But it led to another opportunity that changed his life for the better.

In the early 1990s, Rios was introduced to the California Mexican American Veterans Memorial. The group maintains El Soldado, the statue on Capitol Mall erected 70 years ago by the Society of Mexican Mothers (La Sociedad de Madres) to honor their children’s military service.

“When (Latinx) veterans returned from World War II in the 1940s, they were treated badly,” Rios says. “That’s why the American mothers of Mexican heritage (living near Southside Park) wanted to have a tangible artifact showing the contributions of their sons and daughters who served our great nation in World War II.”

In 1993, Rios and 14 others formed the CMAVM Foundation, which beautifies the El Soldado site and sponsors events such as the 9/11 Remembrance Ceremony at Cal Expo. Each year, Rios sings the national anthem at the event. His wife Paulette reads out the names of victims.

Rios is on his second tour as CMAVM Foundation president, with the mission to educate people on the contributions of Latinx military personnel and promote the respect they deserve.

Jessica Laskey can be reached at Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

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