When Damon Martinez learned Friday that 235 worshippers were killed in an attack on a mosque in Sinai, Egypt, his mind processed alarm and sadness, then drifted to memories of a remote U.S. military outpost in the region.
It was there on the Sinai Peninsula – near the Straits of Tiran by the Red Sea – where Martinez and more than 400 other New Mexicans serving in the National Guard spent most of 2012 helping to keep peace in the longstanding buffer zone between Egypt and Israel.
Martinez recalled gleaming mosques dotting the horizon and exotic sounds of Islamic prayer calls drifting toward the U.S. military base where he and the others were stationed. The former Guardsman, who went on to serve as New Mexico’s U.S. attorney and who is now a Democratic candidate for Congress, also remembered the gracious Egyptians he met during his tour of duty and feeling proud to be welcomed as an American.
“It’s sad and it’s disturbing to me,” Martinez said of Friday’s attack in a phone interview. “These were people who were in a place of worship practicing their religion and trying to live in peace.”
Martinez said the New Mexico National Guard battalion was part of a rotating, multi-national military contingent that has served as a continual peacekeeping operation on Sinai peninsula since the late 1970s, when former President Jimmy Carter, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin reached a peace agreement that demilitarized the Sinai. The agreement marked the first time an Arab state officially recognized Israel.
“When we were there, it was the New Mexicans’ turn to represent the United States,” said Martinez, who served as the New Mexico Guard’s Judge Advocate General, or JAG, officer during the assignment. “We worked with New Zealanders, Fijians, Hungarians and Colombians. This was a perfect example of countries keeping the peace and showing how to go forward.”
Martinez said Friday’s tragic news was especially disturbing because the peninsula has generally maintained a peaceful veneer, even if an Islamist insurgency has percolated near the surface in recent years.
“With the support of the Americans over the decades they’ve been able to keep a peaceful border there,” Martinez said. “It’s strategically crucial for not only the United States but for peace in the Middle East.”
No group immediately claimed responsibility for Friday’s attack, but affiliates of the Islamic State have mounted large-scale attacks against Egypt’s security forces and Coptic Christians in the area. The attack on a mosque, however, is rare, and the staggering body count sent a collective shudder across Egypt. Even if peace has largely prevailed in Sinai, it’s a precarious peace.
“This is a region that can be lawless,” Martinez explained. “Bedouin tribes are now working with these radical groups that are trying to affiliate themselves with the Islamic State and create instability for the government of Egypt. If they can create instability, in turn they would try to create instability between Egypt and Israel. It’s a stepped process but you can see what they are trying to do.”
Martinez said he worries that the State Department under Rex Tillerson is pulling back resources in the region when he believes more – not less – diplomacy is needed.
“Right now we have a military presence in every country or next to every country in the Middle East,” he said. “We also have intelligence there. My concern is whether we have our Secretary of State and the State Department (engaged). In addition to the military, you have to have our State Department involved so we can help keep the peace, or negotiate the peace. We’re abandoning certain areas and this area, the Sinai, is absolutely crucial.”
Martinez, now 51, said he and his fellow Guardsmen and women – many of whom were soldiers and much younger than the mid-40s he was at the time – were honored to help maintain peace in a war-torn region. They wore muted orange helmets to differentiate them from combat soldiers as they went about observing flight patterns, vehicular traffic and submarine activity to ensure adherence to peacekeeping practices.
“I was so proud of the New Mexicans we had there,” he recalled. “They were doing something greater than themselves. Representing not only New Mexico but the United States and literally keeping the peace in a region that has had so much war. I was so proud of them and so proud to have been a part of this.”
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