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[VIDEO] First-time filmmaker devotes herself to Puerto Rican veterans, “The Borinqueneers”

Noemi Figueroa Soulet had a background in Hispanic commercials and acting and was planning on becoming a dance therapist, but somehow the story of the Puerto Rican 65th Infantry Regiment, the only Hispanic-segregated unit in Army history during World Wars I and II and the Korean War, lured all of her attention. So much so, that the Nuyorican, without any filmmaking experience, dedicated nearly a decade of her life to creating her first and only documentary, “The Borinqueneers,” in order to tell their story.

“The Borinqueneers” is the first major documentary to chronicle the story of these forgotten soldiers. The one-hour version premiered nationally for the first time on PBS in 2007, and the Armed Forces Network aired the film to more than 850,000 U.S. troops overseas. Having won many awards in the past five years, throughout the U.S. and Puerto Rico, it’s screening again on Saturday, November 17, at the 2012 International Puerto Rican Heritage Film Festival in New York City.

“I’ve always been interested in Latino issues and trying to show positive role models and show that we are the fabric of society,” says Soulet, producer, director and writer of “The Borinqueneers.” “If anything proves that, it is the service of our soldiers – that’s the ultimate sacrifice.”

Throughout the nine years it took Soulet to make the film, she interviewed approximately 275 Puerto Rican veterans over the phone and in person. Soulet says the majority of the 65th veterans live in Puerto Rico and Florida, but she has even interviewed a Mormon in Utah.

“The hardest part was selecting them…24 appear in the film,” says Soulet, who explains the most time- consuming part was the fundraising needed to fund the film and do the research. “There was very little information out there…I remember contacting the Center for Military History in Washington DC…I began forming relationships with people through the internet.”

The more she talked with veterans, the more committed to the project she got.

“There was a point that I had gone in so deep there was a point of no return,” says Soulet, who says she bonded deeply with the “viejitos,” as Soulet calls them, and found the subject matter of a lifetime. “They’re dying — you then feel, ‘If I give up, and all these years are wasted for nothing and their stories don’t get out,’ I would feel a tremendous guilt.”

Soulet, now 55, slowly had become the voice of the Puerto Rican soldiers that no one ever heard about.

“In my film a veteran says at the end, ‘I just want the American people to know we did our share,’” says the filmmaker, adding,  “They would ask me, ‘Noemi, when are you going to finish?’ They wanted their story told.”

And she says years after the film has been completed, the veterans continue to call her.

Soulet recalls a story of a veteran who was wearing one of the 65th Regiment caps, which she sells on her Web site. “He went to pay for the meal, and the cashier recognized the cap and said, ‘Are you a Borinqueneer? I can’t charge you. You’re one of our heros.’ He called me, so proud, and I thought, ‘That’s why I did this.’”

Soulet says by taking nine years to complete her film, she’s formed relationships so strong that some of the men are like adoptive fathers to her.

“It really affects me and breaks my heart, because now they are going fast,” says Soulet about the passing of many of the veterans year by year. “I’ll get an e-mail from the veteran’s family saying they passed away, and that I meant so much to him.”

Soulet says in some cases, she only spoke to a veteran only one or two hours, but they never forgot those few minutes in which someone was truly listening.

“When they’re gone, and when I’m gone, this film will always be there,” says Soulet, who dedicates her days now doing national presentations about the 65th Regiment. “That’s my legacy, because I don’t have children…This is my baby.”

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