On Feb. 2, 1980, Mary Racicot was at drill with the 744th Medical Detachment of the New Mexico National Guard when her commander, Major James Buckman, told her to load up all the unit’s emergency medical equipment. They were going to Santa Fe to perform damage control at a riot inside the New Mexico State Penitentiary.
“It took a long time to get there because our commander kept calling the governor,” Racicot recalls. It wasn’t until much later that she realized the significance of that detail.
Racicot, a Vietnam veteran who had just graduated from pharmacy school, was in charge of five less-experienced Guard members. For all, the riot—considered one of the nation’s most violent—was horrifying.
“We could smell a very acrid smoke,” Racicot writes in her own carefully documented account of the event. “The murderous ‘ring leaders’ had piled the dead, tortured bodies from the previous night of carnage in the middle of the gym floor and set fire to [them].”
Racicot and her unit stayed at the penitentiary late into the night, treating guards and prisoners who had been beaten, raped and tortured. That night, she was placed on “body detail,” transferring bodies from stretchers into body bags.
“The most difficult for me,” she writes, “was an inmate that had had a blow-torch to his face and groin. When I went to move him from the stretcher, his tissue was still melting. It went through my fingers…”
The entire riot lasted only 36 hours but, by the time Racicot returned home to her family, her life had changed.
“My dad—he was in World War II; he was tough,” she says. “He looked at my face, and I could tell things were never going to be the same again.”
Racicot was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but did not seek counseling until 1998.
Since then, Racicot has spent years petitioning federal and state agencies for additional treatment. She’s heard, repeatedly, that no one can help her.
To be eligible for federal benefits, National Guard reservists must be called into an emergency under Title 32 of the US Code, which requires a sign-off from the president.
Since then-Gov. Bruce King didn’t get then-President Jimmy Carter’s official permission to call in the Guard, riot veterans are not eligible for federal benefits, Veterans Affairs Public Affairs Officer Jo Ann Pacheco tells SFR via email.
At first, the Department of Veterans Affairs did provide benefits for some riot veterans—albeit “erroneously,” according to Pacheco.
In 2002, when the VA rescinded benefits for six National Guard members who had served at the riots, local newspapers carried stories of the veterans’ reactions. Ideas circulated, ranging from creating a fund to pay for continued benefits through the state Legislature to reclassifying the deployment as federal.
Racicot says none transpired.
“I’d make calls to the [New Mexico] Department of Military Affairs. I’d get a recording and, for the longest time, I’d leave messages to call me back—and nothing, nothing,” Racicot says. “That was really disappointing. Nobody cares.”
But to Ray Seva, the public information officer for the New Mexico Department of Veterans’ Services, it’s not a question of caring. The riot simply falls into a sort of legal limbo.
“It just doesn’t fit under any of the state or even VA benefits,” Seva says.
Van Cravens, the public information officer for the state’s Workers’ Compensation Administration, says the riot occurred six years before WCA even existed.
“I’ve gone to my longest presiding judge, who’s been here 25 years, and he knows nothing of this,” Cravens tells SFR. (In 2002, however, a WCA official told the Albuquerque Journal that access to workers’ compensation for riot veterans was “very unlikely.”)
Jeff George, a Veterans’ Service officer in Santa Fe, says he’s working to secure benefits for two of Racicot’s fellow riot veterans.
“They’re going through just as much PTSD as a combat veteran,” George says. “It was like combat, what they heard, smelled [and] saw. Unfortunately, everybody’s turned their back on them and said, ‘It’s your problem; deal with it.’”
For Racicot, that’s easier said than done.
“The feeling I got all along the way [was], ‘You’re just a joke. Forget about it,’” Racicot says. “That feeling is just defeat.”