At a Veterans' Rally to Save Fort Bayard, Reggie Price (photo at right) of the Southwestern New Mexico Transition Center served as moderator. He and the transition center board were the organizers of the event, which was attended by more than 50 people.
The SWNMTC was created in an effort to address the nationwide and state of New Mexico crisis of veteran homelessness. It brings together veterans and other volunteers of Luna, Grant and Hidalgo counties.
The mission is to "Assist homeless veterans and others as the need arises." The "others" include unconfirmed veterans who do not possess their discharge documents and anyone else who can benefit from the group's assistance.
Attainable goals are divided into four phases:
Phase I: Feeding the hungry.
Phase II: Provide hot showers and basic hygiene facilities.
Phase III: Provide safe day sleeping facilities.
Phase IV: Provide overnight housing. In this phase, the group will begin the transitional process that will attempt to transform the homeless and fatigued individuals into a law-abiding, registered-to-vote, independent-living asset to society.
Other board members are Terry Kline, Jim Covey, John Pace and Frank Donohue of Grant County and Miriam Ortega Guzman, Rachel Chavez, Terry Athey and Price of Luna County.
Armando Amador, a Vietnam veteran who is a native of Grant County, spoke. He, upon leaving Vietnam, signed a DD14 waiver, not realizing that he had just signed away his benefits and after having fought to receive the benefits owed to him, has been helping veterans for many years to get their benefits. "I have helped more than 250 veterans."
"In our minds, Fort Bayard would be the best place for veterans," Amador said. "Pass on the word about Fort Bayard. Tell three of your friends and soon everyone will know."
Fort Bayard is a National Historic Landmark in Grant County, New Mexico, which was founded in 1866 to serve as a protective outpost against Apaches for ranchers and miners in the area. The fort was also the home of the Ninth Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers, a group made up primarily of black Americans, some of whom had recently been slaves.
In 1900, Fort Bayard became a U.S. Army hospital, especially for those soldiers who had contracted tuberculosis. The high desert and its dry climate were considered beneficial to those with TB. Many present-day residents of Grant County are descended from those recovered soldiers.
In 1956, the state of New Mexico took over the campus and hospital. In 2007, the hospital was abandoned, as were all of the historic homes and buildings, which now deteriorate with no maintenance or care from the state. Because the state considers the fort a liability, it has put it up for sale.
New Mexico General Services, the proprietor of the property, recently requested expressions of interest.
The SWNMTC was one of those responding, and asked that the future of Fort Bayard be focused on veterans-centered programs, proposing collaborative efforts made between the SWNMTC, private for-profits, non-profits, and government entities for development and use of the property.
Those already signing onto the effort are various veterans' organizations, including American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans, Vietnam Veterans of America, Marine Corps League, as well as the Fort Bayard Historic Presentation Society, Fort Bayard Restoration and Development Coalition, Therapeutic Freedom Riders and independent medical and human-services providers, Western New Mexico University, Northern New Mexico University, and many individuals who support the endeavors.
Proposed uses include mental health recreational activities and a women's health clinic to address the needs of those returning from war with post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury with various sorts of therapy, including equine, canine Native American sweat lodge, horticulture and fishing.
Uses for the buildings include a school of higher learning for skilled trades, providing jobs to upgrade historic facilities and green projects to provide sustainability of utilities.
"All of us have a part in saving Fort Bayard," Amador said. "I did talk to the economic development group and told them we need to fight to keep Fort Bayard.
"We, veterans, belong to the community," he continued. "And now, we Vietnam veterans are blending in."
The next speaker was John Sassie, who grew up in Montana. "When I came back from Vietnam, I couldn't sleep or work with people. I found magic help in a bottle… by drinking. In a bar one night, I hit a fellow whose mother had gotten him out of having to go the Vietnam. I ran… to Alaska. But life wouldn't fall together for me. I didn't want to be a bum, but I didn't know what to do and didn't know why I didn't know. My wife talked me into going into a Vietnam vet center. I went in twice a week for six month and told the psychiatrist I was well, but then my life turned upside down."
"I finally found employment and was there about a year, when I decided to walk to Montana," Sassie said. "It took me about 70 miles to realize it was not a good idea. I went into the V.A. Hospital for PTSD treatment in Topeka, Kansas. After I had been there three months, they liked me so much, they asked me to stay another three months. Finally, a group did an intervention with me and told me they had never seen so much rage in a person. I didn't know I had rage. They saved my life."
He gave away everything he owned and walked 300 miles across Nebraska. "I confronted every fear I had. When I got back to Topeka, I realized I was afraid of everything. Then, the Creator gave me the best thing ever—my beautiful wife—as well as everything I had ever owned and more. I had no belief system. I didn't know who I was. I found the Lakota way, and it helped me make connections all around me."
"This is wonderful, what you are doing," Sassie said. "I've never known three Vietnam veterans who got together on anything, and here you are working together. Those coming back now will appreciate what you're doing."
The last speaker before a lunch break was Drew Dix, Medal of Honor winner for his service in Vietnam.
"All these programs don't do anything, except help you be who you are," Dix said. "I am proud to be part of this community. Combat veterans migrate to small rural communities, with 44 percent of all veterans living in rural areas. I also tried to hide out in Alaska."
He said because he is involved in a contract with someone who has a contract with the V.A., he is up-to-date on what is going on in the government agency.
"We have to do a better job in our communities to get those who are not veterans to support us and help us be part of the community," Dix said. "We can't say: we did this, we need this. It sounds like we just want more. Make the community realize we're part of the community. Not just veterans have PTS or TBI. We need to do a better job in the media. PTS is not necessarily a disorder. Those with PTS are not a danger to others. And TBI is not the same as PTS."
He suggested after a facility for homeless veterans is established at Fort Bayard, similar to one he helped develop in Seattle, that research on PTS should be gathered in one place—Fort Bayard.
Dix said he wished he had more time to devote to the Fort Bayard project, but he already has contracts across the country and spends few days a month at home.
"I promote New Mexico a lot," Dix said. "This could be a model for the rest of the country. I'm here to help, when I'm here. You're doing it for the right reasons and I'm with you."
Before a break to eat chili and cornbread by Brewer Hill Catering, veterans from various wars stood up to applause. There were two veterans who served in the Korean War, many from the Vietnam conflict, several women veterans and other veterans of various times and conflicts.
After the break were more speakers. Terry Kline poske about equine therapy. He works at the Silver City V.A. Clinic.
Cecilia Bell of the Fort Bayard Historic Preservation Society and the Fort Bayard Restoration and Development Coalition said: "We all need to work together, because no one can do it by himself or herself."
Frances Gonzales, who spoke from the viewpoint of the Native Americans, blessed those participating in the rally with a feather and white sage and a simple prayer. She alto introduced her Native American family and friendsShe was part of a recent healing ceremony between Native Americans and Buffalo soldiers. She talked about Fort Bayard as having the potential as a great place for veterans to heal. "It is a great place for healing."
Carla Buckner of the V.A. Clinic discussed the benefit of veterans with PTSD having a focus and said being passionate about a project, such as saving Fort Bayard, heals them.