Photo and article by Mary Alice Murphy
District 38 Rep. Rebecca Dow presents a certificate and resolution of appreciation for his service to World War II veteran Dan McBride.
The all-day New Mexico Legislative Interim Military and Veterans' Affairs Committee meeting took place in Silver City at the Grant County Veterans Memorial Business and Conference Center on Thursday, July 13, 2017.
After lunch, the representatives and senators heard from members of local veterans' service organizations.
Before the session began, District 38 Representative Rebecca Dow presented a certificate of appreciation from the House of Representatives to Dan McBride. It recounted his service during World War II, including the many medals and bronze stars he received for his stints. He was a paratrooper who landed behind the lines after the Normandy Invasion. He has returned to Normandy many times to visit where he served.
The first local VSO representative to speak was Armando Amador, one of the founders of the local Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 358. "We started the chapter in the early 1990s to move forward with issues many of us were having."
During the time veterans were leaving Vietnam, they were handed many pieces of paper to sign. "One of the ones we inadvertently signed was a waiver to our DD14 to be able to receive benefits," Amador said. "How many don't know they signed that waiver and should have had benefits? Many are now homeless. I pursued the issue. I tried for a congressional investigation. I talked to several secretaries of the Veterans Administration, including Principi and Shinseki. Nothing got done. They asked me to send my DD14 waiver and they would white it out. It took me 13 years to get the benefits I was owed."
Amador said he also talked to psychiatrists about the medical and mental problems he was having. "One told me: 'You're from Vietnam. You're all druggies and crazy. No way anyone can help you.'"
The third psychiatrist he went to said: "I was never in Vietnam. I was never a veteran, but I think I can help you."
"As time went one, we discovered there were a lot of Vietnam veterans in the area," Amador said. "We formed units to help one another and kept pushing until we increased our numbers. In 1986, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) was finally approved as an illness. Then we got a V.A. community-based clinic in Silver City. The first counselor told the director he was against what I wanted to do. We finally got a good counselor."
The group was up to about 16 Vietnam veterans, and they would meet at a restaurant to eat and talk with the counselor. "Then we became 35, then 56, so we moved to the Bayard Community Center. We grew to more than 100 combat veterans seeking help for PTSD."
"We tried to get a veterans' center in our area," Amador said. "I talked to five different directors of veterans' centers in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Texas. Most have from 19-36 people using the centers. A counselor from El Paso visited us and saw 85 just that one day. It was the largest group he had ever seen. We petitioned for a veterans' center in Silver City. We had more than 2,000 signatures. We sent the petition to Washington, D.C. They lost it. I faxed it and they got it. I would call every two weeks asking about it. They asked me to stop calling. They told me it was in the legislative process.
"Then I read in the paper that there would be two new veterans' centers in New Mexico—one in the north and one in Las Cruces," Amador said. "I talked to the V.A. about it and they said they had to put it in the places where the greatest number of veterans were. Now we have to travel 100 miles to Las Cruces. We did not get our veterans' center."
Amador said he doesn't look sick, but his lungs tell him he is when they start bleeding. "What about the ones with cancer? Our chapter pushed for a veterans center here, but we did get one south of Albuquerque."
Chapter 358 gives out scholarships, Amador said. Some of the recipients have become respiratory therapists, a nurse, and one is going for a doctorate. "We do positive things for the community, like food baskets. In 2000, we did a stand down and 474 veterans showed up. We had enough to support them. People came from the V.A. and the veterans' center. We gave the veterans clothes, showers and food."
"The Forgotten Veterans Memorial is my dream," Amador said. "It's out on the way to Fort Bayard. It is moving forward."
District 39 Rep. Rodolopho "Rudy" Martinez, who as co-chairman of the committee was chairing it in Silver City said the group would be visiting the memorial on the tour that afternoon to Fort Bayard.
The next speaker was Ray Davis, past commander of the Allingham-Golding American Legion Post 17. "The American Legion is the oldest and largest veterans service organization with more than 2 million members worldwide. It was founded in 1919, and in 2019, we will be celebrating our 100th anniversary. It is open to all honorably discharged veterans from all branches of service and all periods of conflict."
He cited the four pillars of the American Legion service as:
• Fostering a strong national security;
• Taking care of veterans;
• Mentoring the youth of our nation; and
• Promoting patriotism and honor.
He said he wanted to bring up that the Disabled Veterans of America transportation van that takes veterans to appointments at the V.A. hospital in Albuquerque has more than 300,000 miles on it. "We are soliciting funds. We ask for your help in getting a new van."
"Membership in VSOs is very important," Davis emphasized. "When we go to Congress, they look at our numbers. They are votes."
He also talked about "my future home—Fort Bayard National Cemetery. It is under construction. The cemetery received $2.7 million for three phases."
"The first contractor left it a mess, when he just quit," David said. "Now we have a new contractor working out there. Near completion is the columbarium. Jared Howard, acting National Cemetery Association director for Santa Fe and Fort Bayard national cemeteries will answer your questions at Fort Bayard."
Davis said Phase 2 is the administration building, which is also almost done. The third phase is drainage. "The drains were above the level of the runoff. They didn't work. A follow up project is planned for November with $1 million to install irrigation and start the turf. We've been through the cemetery with Rudy. Things are progressing after the fiasco."
"Frank Donohue (of the Gaffney-Oglesby Marine Corps League Detachment 1328), asked me what we could do," David continued. "I wrote a letter to all our politicians. I explained the national cemetery is a memorial to veterans. About a week later, I got a call, and met with Anita Hanson at the cemetery. She took photos back to the National Cemetery Association."
When Susan Parks became the director of the Santa Fe and Fort Bayard national cemeteries, she suggested to Davis that the veterans in the area need a cemetery foundation. "She pointed at me and said: 'You're the first member.'"
"Our purpose is to improve the cemetery without interfering with federal regulations," Davis continued.
District 20 Rep. Jim Dines asked: "Have you heard updates on the vans? Is yours one that is due for a change?"
Alan Ramirez, deputy secretary of the New Mexico Department of Veterans Affairs said it is a part of the DAV transportation fleet. "We will have a summit on September 3 and will ask Ray Davis to attend. Most of our vans are over 100,000 miles. We are trying to set up a statewide transportation plan for all our veterans."
Davis noted that the local veterans service organizations "are close and we work together to get things done."
Mary Billings, in charge of veterans' issues at Western New Mexico University said: "We help get paperwork filed and get funding for our students that are veterans. About a year and a half ago, we reached out to the VSO directors. We set up a room at Western for a small veterans center in the Juan Chacon building. I'm not a veteran, so we will put Paolo Veltri in charge of continuing it. It has a library for veterans. We are happy to have it open for veterans. We will look for your support."
"We thank Western for stepping up to do this," Martinez said.
District 69 Rep. Harry Garcia echoed the thanks.
Donohue next spoke to the committee members. "I am here to ask for help for veterans in the southwest corner of New Mexico. We need the van. I used to be a volunteer driver."
He said the Marine Corps League Detachment 1328 that he represents was begun in 2009. "We help the homeless and near homeless veterans. We provide honors for funerals and also scholarships for students wanting to go to college."
"We are active in the community," Donohue said. "We keep moving day to day, and we get things done."
"We recognize the services you provide," Martinez told Donohue.
Donohue continued by saying that the area lost Marine Col. John Hamilton on July 2. "His remains will go to Arlington National Cemetery."
For the DAV, John Tetford and Charles Deming spoke.
Deming said DAV Chapter 1 was the first DAV chapter in New Mexico and was formed in 1950, with most of the first members being survivors from the Bataan Death March of World War II in the Philippines.
"In 1921, the DAV, in cooperation with Ford Motor Company and the V.A. hospitals, the transportation program began," Deming said. "In 1922, the first disabled veterans were transported to the V.A. hospital. From that developed the cooperative to provide vans. It's the responsibility of the local chapter and businesses to raise half the cost of a van. We need $19,000. Ford and a trust fund pick up the rest of the cost."
Tetford said the local DAV chapter began soliciting funds in June 2016. As of June 23, 2017, they had raised $4,900.33. "Our goal for the rest is $14,099.67. You can donate directly to the DAV account at Washington Federal Bank at 1203 N. Hudson in Silver City or mail a check to DAV Grant County Fort Bayard Chapter 1, P.O. Box 3052, Silver City, NM 88062.
District 64 Rep. Randal S. Crowder asked that the contact information be given to staff.
Deming, who serves as treasurer of the local DAV chapter, said Amador has helped many veterans get benefits, "even Korean veterans. We appreciate the help from other VSOs." He introduced one of the DAV van volunteer drivers, Art Sierra.
When asked about the route they take, Sierra said they pick up veterans in Silver City, Bayard, Central, Deming, meet in Hatch for Las Cruces veterans. "We are still going up to Albuquerque twice a week. Sometimes, we meet with a van from Socorro. Tuesday and Thursday are the only days we do the whole route between Silver City and Albuquerque. Monday sometimes we drive as far as Truth or Consequences. And some days we transfer our veterans to the vans from Las Cruces."
"We start from Silver City at 1:30 a.m.," Sierra said. "It's a full day. We usually get back between 5 and 7 p.m."
Deming said all the drivers are volunteers.
District 66 Rep. Bob Wooley asked: "When do you need the money (for the van)?"
Deming replied: "We need it by November to be able to get the paperwork done to get the van. If we don't have it by then, we have to wait another year. Deming and Carlsbad lost their vans. Any veterans can get a ride to an appointment at the V.A. hospital. They don't have to be disabled."
Wooley asked if there were any reason the DAV would not qualify for capital outlay. "We bought five vans for the southeast part of the state."
District 41 Rep. Debbie A. Rodella said someone has to be the fiscal agent.
Wooley noted that the funding was only for the van, not for insurance or maintenance, which is usually taken care of through donations. "In the southeast part of the state, we have a van transportation service organization."
Deming noted that someone has to hold title of the van.
Martinez suggested a conversation between the southeastern transportation group and the DAV Chapter 1.
Dow asked about veterans who travel and receive stipends for mileage and food, and if that could help pay some of the bills.
Deming said none of those veterans who travel in the vans receive the stipend. "Some may not qualify for the stipend."
Donohue said qualifying requires at least a 30 percent disability.
Davis introduced Howard who would be going to the cemetery with the legislators to answer questions.
"We are dedicated to putting resources into Fort Bayard," Howard told the committee members. "Because it is a construction zone, we ask you to park outside the cemetery."
The session recessed for the tour to Fort Bayard, and would return to adjourn the session.