“Wouldn’t it have been a shame if these 13, if their remains had just been tossed in the mesa?” New Mexico Department of Veterans’ Services Secretary John Garcia said, standing on a stage over the wooden boxes filled with ashes.
Contrary to claims made at the ceremony, New Mexico’s state government is not a first-of-its kind champion of such forgotten veterans. A California-based non-profit group, the Missing In America Project, has gotten government officials to bury hundreds of unclaimed remains around the country since 2007.
And although Garcia told reporters last week he didn’t know why it had taken months or years to discover the ashessaying, “we just happened to stumble on it”SFR has learned there is more to the story.
MIAP’s New Mexico coordinator, Christie Boyer, says she first brought the issue to officials’ attention. And although she praises Garcia’s response, she says the event attracted a certain amount of opportunism. Officials changed the date of the funeral two or three times so that Gov. Bill Richardson could attend, Boyer says. (It was an inconvenience, as she had to arrange for someone else to care for her 86-year-old father, a World War II veteran.)
“It’s political,” Boyer, a Santa Fe County resident and retired Albuquerque police officer, tells SFR. “They wanted to take credit for it. Bernalillo County wanted to take all the credit.”
On the other hand, “when it came down to it, John Garcia really stepped to the plate,” Boyer says.
SFR failed to find many details on the lives of the 13 veterans. As Garcia notes, some were likely homeless and may have suffered from alcoholism or drug addiction.
Asked what his department is doing to ensure that soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq will not suffer the same fate, Garcia cites “communication and outreach” efforts, and places some responsibility with an earlier generation. “I think the Vietnam vets are trying to make sure this doesn’t happen to them,” Garcia tells SFR.
Boyer believes the government could still do more to care for the veterans. “Nobody was taking responsibility for these people,” Boyer says. “And that’s what’s happening all across the nation. It’s not just here. It’s everywhere.”
New Mexico Veterans by the Numbers
Age of the youngest New Mexican to die in Iraq or Afghanistan: 19 (Army Pfc. Mario A Reyes, Las Cruces)
Months after taking shrapnel to the brain in Iraq that 24-year-old Army Staff Sgt. Daniel Tallouzi died at an Albuquerque hospital: 18
Approximate number of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in New Mexico: 30,000
Number of active-duty US forces now deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan: 186,000
Number of private contractors working for the Pentagon in those countries: 207,553
Share of those contractors who are US citizens: 1 in 5
Share of Santa Fe County residents who are veterans: 1 in 12
Estimated number of homeless veterans in New Mexico, according to Garcia: 7,000
Number of homeless vets provided overnight shelter for at least two weeks last year, according to DVS: 182
Expected attendance at a DVS-sponsored veterans’ job fair at the Hotel Albuquerque on June 22: 1,500
Number of employersincluding Avon, Circle K and US Foodservicewho have registered for the job fair so far: 15
Percentage of attendees who landed jobs at last year’s fair: 4
Number of the 13 indigent veterans buried last week who served in the Air Force: 5 (Carleton Crouch, Patrick Faudi, Patrick Ford, Norman W Stiver, Clovis Walker)
in the Army: 4 (William Arthur Bailey, Howard Fried, Lonnie Donald James, John Mercado)
in the Navy: 3 (Lonnie Douglass Gregg, Carl N Peterson, Sr, James D Wroblewski)
in the Marines: 1 (John Thompson)