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To honor NM’s veterans, save their stories

Isleta Pueblo Chairman Paul Torres, left, with U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M. Udall's office helped Torres get replacement medals for his service during the Vietnam War and has been connecting veterans from across the state with the Veterans History Project in the Library of Congress to preserve their narratives. (Courtesy of Sen. Tom Udall's office)

Isleta Pueblo Chairman Paul Torres, left, with U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M. Udall’s office helped Torres get replacement medals for his service during the Vietnam War and has been connecting veterans from across the state with the Veterans History Project in the Library of Congress to preserve their narratives. (Courtesy of Sen. Tom Udall’s office)

Chairman Paul Torres of Isleta Pueblo was awarded the U.S. Navy Unit Commendation, Navy “E” Ribbon, Armed Service Expeditionary Medal and Vietnam Service Medal for his service in the Vietnam War. But for decades he didn’t have those medals.

When I sat down with Chairman Torres to record an oral history about his service in the Navy, he asked for help obtaining discharge documents. And while acquiring those documents, my staff was able to also obtain replacements for the medals that were lost. I proudly presented replacement medals to Chairman Torres, along with Councilman Diego Lujan, at an October ceremony.

Commendations and medals are an important recognition of service. But it’s the story behind the medals that is so important. That’s why my staff and I have been connecting with veterans from all 33 counties in New Mexico to help record and preserve their narratives as part of the Veterans History Project in the Library of Congress.

The Veterans History Project is an initiative that weaves the experience of service members into our national memory. These interviews are permanently archived in the Library of Congress and can be accessed online.

New Mexico has a proud tradition of military service. When my staff and I learned that New Mexican voices were underrepresented within the Veterans History Project, we decided to seek out those voices and record their stories.

We heard from veterans like William Griego of Santa Rosa, who has served in the United States Army Reserves and National Guard for 35 years. He deployed to Iraq as a Platoon Sergeant during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

We heard from Elizabeth Bryant of Pecos, a command sergeant major who worked in the Army’s Equal Opportunity Office. Like many in New Mexico, Bryant’s family maintains the tradition of service. She raised two sons who have deployed.

The veterans we interviewed shared their experiences, sometimes in harrowing detail. And they talked about the challenges they faced when they came home. We heard how our nation often falls short in getting veterans the support they need – and have earned – upon return.

“I think we need to do the best we can for our soldiers,” Bryant said, speaking of her son’s deployment. “We sent a little boy to war, and we got an old man back.”

For returning veterans who are facing challenges, we need to ensure their access to a full array of medical, mental health, rehabilitation and educational services. We must also support veterans transitioning to the civilian world who bring qualities and experience that are of immense value, inside and outside the military. We cannot afford to leave anyone behind.

This Veterans Day gives all of us the opportunity to reflect on what we owe to those who have served and sacrificed. We have some distance to cover. New Mexico is second only to Montana in our share of veterans experiencing homelessness. And veterans in rural states like ours often must travel long distances to access veteran support services. We must do better.

At the beginning of this project, we set a goal to interview 50 veterans representing every county in New Mexico. My staff has worked hard. We have exceeded this goal with the help of nearly 80 veterans who generously donated their time and shared their experiences. I’m looking forward to presenting these narrative histories to the Librarian of Congress.

For veterans like Bob Williams, who helped treat wounded soldiers in Vietnam, telling his story made him feel valued for his military career. “It’s helped me to feel that my country really feels like I did a service,” he said. Williams continues to serve New Mexicans by providing care in the Union County Hospital.

I hope that families, communities and organizations across New Mexico will take this project on as their own. It’s a privilege to learn from these veterans, and I am inspired by their courage and strength. This initiative honors the service that these brave individuals have given to our country and helps us recommit to them in turn.

Anyone can conduct these oral history interviews, and any veteran can submit his or her own story, diary, letters, photographs or other historical information. We are all enriched when New Mexico veterans share their stories of service, heroism and patriotism with our grateful nation.

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