Most decorated Cuban-American Vietnam vet Jacinto Acebal dies at 75

Jacinto Acebal was honored as the most decorated Cuban-American soldier of the Vietnam War. The distinction: 18 medals during his tour of duty from 1964 to 1965.

He was 23 when he was sent to Vietnam as a military adviser — six years after emigrating to Miami from Havana in 1958. When he returned, however, he faced a hostile homecoming, fueled by anti-war protests.

“I’d been insulted, called a baby-killer, a criminal. To my face. Here in Miami. If I was supposed to be a bad guy, I wasn’t interested in the medals,” Acebal told the Miami Herald in 1983.

Acebal, who died Wednesday at 75 after a two-year battle with cancer, had a conversion when he visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington in 1983.

He was moved. People, after all, did care. And suddenly, at age 41, so did he. With a vengeance.

He contacted then-Rep. Claude Pepper, the legendary Democratic South Florida congressman. A congressional aide determined that Acebal, a machine gunner and helicopter crew chief, had earned the most medals during 544 hours of combat missions.

“[W]hat a patriot he was,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen on Thursday. “The one part of his wonderful life of which he was the proudest was the fact that he was the highest decorated Cuban-American Vietnam combat veteran.”

If there was fault it was not the fault of those men and women who gave their lives. He performed those duties with characteristic American courage.

The late Rep. Claude Pepper at ceremonies in 1983 as he presented Cuban-American veteran Jacinto Acebal with his 18 Vietnam medals.

Acebal’s daughter Milagros Acebal was 6 when her dad claimed his honors amid a flurry of cameras.

She resolved then to become a reporter. “I want to assume a leadership role as my father did, and let people know that one person can make a difference,” she wrote in a 1997 Miami Herald guest column. After stints as a writer and producer for WSVN, WPLG and Telemundo, she is a PR and marketing account manager for Florida International University’s College of Engineering and Computing.

Acebal’s other daughter, Marie Izquierdo, is chief academic officer for Miami-Dade Public Schools. She speaks of a devoted family man whose daughters and grandchildren were his everything. He taught them to boat and fish. Cheered their sporting endeavors. Took them on helicopter rides over the Miami skyline.

After returning from the war, Acebal joined the U.S. Postal Service in 1968. He rose from letter carrier to Hispanic program specialist in a 45-year career.

Even the hazards of his job didn’t faze him. “He was bitten several times in the line of duty, yet he never lost his affection of dogs. In fact, his favorite canine, Princessa, was at his side when he passed,” Izquierdo said.

Ace had been bravely fighting cancer for the last years of his accomplished life but this was the only battle that he didn’t win. Dex and I will carry our love for Ace forever in our hearts.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

Acebal was a member of the Miami Community Relations Board, Spanish American League Against Discrimination, Greater Miami Hispanic Council and the United Way of Dade County. In 2000, he was recognized with the Postal Service’s Dot Sharpe Lifetime Achievement Award for diversity achievement.

He was also a frequent contributor to the Herald’s Readers’ Forum pages, firing off indignant letters to the editor to defend the mail service and opining on local news. “After reading about the lack of toilet paper in Venezuela, maybe Cuba could help its communist partners by exporting the Granma newspaper for the government officials,” he wrote in 2013.

Acebal is also survived by his wife Maria Antonia Acebal and grandchildren Evan, Julia, Olivia and Jacob.

A viewing will be held at 5 p.m. Friday at Vior Funeral Home, 291 NW 37th Ave., Miami. A military service and burial will be at 11 a.m. Saturday at Woodlawn Park South, 11655 SW 117th Ave., Miami.