New Mexico Legislators Recall Time In Armed Forces And How It Eventually Led Them To Politics

Military veteran Sen. Harold Pope, D-Albuquerque, looks out over the Rotunda at the State Capitol on Thursday. Pope served in the Air Force. Gabriela Campos/The Santa Fe New Mexican

Sen. Craig Brandt, center, on the Senate floor at the Roundhouse on Wednesday. Brandt served in the Air Force. Javier Gallegos/The Santa Fe New Mexican

By Robert Nott
The Santa Fe New Mexican

They left behind their civilian lives to join the cause for very different reasons.

Uncle Sam drafted one into the U.S. Army at the height of the Vietnam War.

Another joined the U.S. Marines during the same conflict, not quite understanding the pain and loss he would endure.

The others, who served in successive generations, say they got into the military looking for a focus — a chance to start again or an opportunity to be taught a trade that could lead to a career.

Today, years after they served in uniform, they are serving again: this time in civvies; this time as state legislators.

Years removed from their days is the armed forces, the seven military vets who now are New Mexico lawmakers still think about those times — hoping, perhaps, to re-create the sense of mission and togetherness they once felt.

“To this day, I wish I was still in,” said Republican Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho. “I loved being in the military. The camaraderie, you can’t find anywhere else. Although the guys in this [Republican] caucus are pretty close — but I haven’t found that anywhere else.”

Political differences aside, the onetime servicemen and women now in the Legislature still believe in the sense of team. And though the 2023 session promises some divisive debate on key topics, they look back on their time in uniform as an inspiration — a chance to create a bond.

Their stories are very different, and yet, similar.

Rep. Eliseo Alcon, D-Milan, U.S. Army, 1969-1971

Alcon learned a hard lesson when he chose to stop going to college and start working at the end of 1968: Uncle Sam had a long reach. Though he had no interest in joining the military or being trained as a medic, that’s what happened after he was drafted and finished boot camp in the summer of 1969.

By that year’s end, he was starting a 15-month tour in Vietnam. Don’t ask him what he saw or what he did. 

“It’s not something you really talk about,” said Alcon, who turns 73 this month. “I was a medic. When somebody gets injured in combat, the first word you hear is ‘medic.’  That’s what you do — you go out there and try to keep somebody alive.”

He recalled a bunch of kids, most 18 to 22, being thrust into a bloody conflict none of them could understand.  

Geopolitics aside, Alcon said the men fighting in Vietnam had their own personal mission: “We were there to protect ourselves. That’s what our vision was, and the vision of how could we all make it home.”

After he returned home, Alcon does not recall the country or his home state of New Mexico treating him badly. Still, there were signs of trouble. “I spent most of my time drinking beer,” he said.

He would not be diagnosed or treated for post-traumatic stress disorder for decades. 

Still, there were some benefits. Alcon said the military taught him to lead. He has carried with him a soldier’s sense of wanting to get things done.

Alcon, who began serving in the Legislature in 2009, chairs the House Labor, Veterans And Military Affairs Committee. The military taught him to work as part of a team and that comes in handy in the Legislature, he said. 

He likes to say good morning to the other legislators, regardless of party affiliation. And the legislative staff and visitors, too.

“That’s part of being a medic,” he said. “Always checking in on people.”

Rep. Harry Garcia, D-Grants, U.S. Marines, 1968-1969

“I was the best Marine in the history of the United States Marine Corps,” Garcia said with a laugh.

He’s kidding, of course. 

He graduated from Grants High School in May 1968. By December, he was in Vietnam. The first gift he got there was an M-60 machine gun.

He came from a family of military veterans. Garcia’s dad served in the U.S. Navy in World War II, two of his brothers were in the U.S. Air Force and a third served in the Army. 

“I said, ‘Let me do the Marine Corps, and we’ll have covered all the branches for the family,’” he recalled. 

He said he gave little thought to fear before he landed at Da Nang, where he disembarked to find transport planes loading up cargo to take back to the United States.

Coffins. Lines and lines of coffins. 

Then, he said, “Of course I was scared.” 

He was stationed at Hill 55, southeast of Da Nang, for just over a year. 

He does not talk about what he saw, what he did to survive.

“The things you saw happen, the things you saw your friends go through — you don’t talk about it,” he said.

Then, after a moment: “I’ll tell you one thing — I lost a lot of friends.”

He said he returned home to find some people considered Vietnam veterans baby-killers.

“There was no welcome home, no anything,” he said. “The names people called us were terrible. It’s still hard to adjust [to]. I still live that every day.”

A constant proponent of legislation supporting veterans’ issues — Garcia was vocal in his criticism of how the state ran the New Mexico State Veterans home for years, though the facility is undergoing a renovation and upgrade — he said his military service makes him want to help people, especially veterans, who are having issues with various aspects of state government. 

Garcia, 73, has little use for historians, critics or others who take the country to task for getting involved in Vietnam. 

“The only people who will ever understand Vietnam are the people who served over there,” he said. 

Sen. William “Bill” Sharer, R-Farmington, U.S. Army 1978-1992

Years before the popular aerial action movie Top Gun came out in 1986, a young Sharer dreamed of becoming a Navy pilot. He applied to the U.S. Naval Academy but wasn’t accepted, so he attended New Mexico Military Institute in Roswell — hoping to use the experience so he could try again.

At that time, the institute had an Army Rangers training program and Sharer figured, if he got into that, it “would look good to get into the Naval Academy.” He had no intention of joining the Army, where “you carry everything on your back, paint everything green and wallow in the mud.”

Though the Naval Academy again turned him down, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point showed interest.

He eschewed the offer from West Point, graduated from the Ranger program at the institute and found himself in the Army — doing all the things he swore he wouldn’t do.

Sharer served as an infantryman. He still recalls a sergeant greeting new recruits with the line: “There is no one here who is black, white, red or yellow. You are now all green, and you will stay green as long as you are in my Army.”

His point — like that of many other veterans — is racial, religious, ethnical or political differences did not get in the way of a team out to pull together and get the mission done. 

His years in the service taught him fortitude, he said. 

Sharer, 62, launched a one-man crusade last year to stop a sweeping voting rights bill, using a seemingly stream-of-consciousness monologue that ran more than two hours and eventually ran out the clock on the session. His efforts ended any chance of the bill being passed or signed into law. 

“Surrender is not a Ranger word — which is why I continue to fight even when I should stop,” Sharer said of his attitude. 

His military experience left him with a sense of camaraderie he has not found since.

“I don’t think I’ve had that anywhere else,” Sharer said. “This is the closest I get to to camaraderie,” he said of his colleagues in the Senate. 

But after a moment, he added it’s not the same “as an infantry platoon or a Ranger platoon.”

Rep. Debra Sariñana, D-Albuquerque, U.S. Air Force Reserves, 1984-1990

Sariñana smiled as she recalled looking up with pride at her father, Army veteran and reservist Leos Flores. In just one sentence, he imparted upon her a lesson for which she is forever grateful: “The greatest thing you can do is to serve your country.”

She signed up as an Air Force reservist in 1984 after earning her teaching degree at New Mexico State University. Older than most of the recruits she encountered on her first night in basic training, she comforted them as they cried. 

She trained and worked as a medical unit specialist, serving in hospitals and medical clinics. She dealt with ambulance crews and flight surgeons and still recalls, with sadness, one patient she couldn’t help: a woman who, while visiting Mexico, ate something that not only disagreed with her but led to her death via complications.

“That was the saddest thing,” Sariñana said.

She recalls not always being afforded respect from active duty military personnel, noting they often felt reservists were merely “weekend people”.

But the tradition of service continues; Sariñana’s daughter joined the Air Force and her son joined the Marines. 

Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, U.S. Air Force, 1986-1993 

Brandt’s grandfather served in World War II as a Navy Seabee. He had one uncle in the Navy and another in the Air Force.

“Those were the influences that led me to the military,” he said.

Brandt, 54, joined the Air Force, where he worked as a military police officer. He was not just younger then but thinner and shorter. His memory of basic training comes back easily.

“I was really small,” he said. “I had to get a waiver to get in. I was skinny as a rail. I think I grew three inches and put on 40 pounds in basic training. So part of my time in basic training was eating in the chow hall, eating all the high starch, high-carb foods because I had to put on weight. I’d sit there eating as fast as I could.”

Thinking back on the many things the military taught him, Brandt said the one seemingly small lesson he learned all those decades ago is punctuality.

“I’m never late for anything,” he said. “We were told: ‘If you’re not early, you’re late.’” Forced to retire in the early 1990s after an injury, he does not recall division between airmen when it came to difficult subjects like racism, religion, politics or gender. 

“We were all in the military. And we were all serving to get to the same place, to protect our country,” he said.  “We didn’t care what your race was; we didn’t care what your sex was; as long as we were getting the job done, it did not matter.”

Sen. Greg Baca, R-Belen, U.S. Navy, 1986-1992

Baca, now the Senate minority leader, joined the military at age 17 and soon found himself transported from the desert environment of New Mexico to a seemingly infinite ocean, where he served on the carrier USS Nimitz.

He said he squandered some years as a teenager and didn’t do as well in school as he could have, but when he took a general military aptitude test, “the nuclear Navy reached out to me and gave me the opportunity to join them. So I did.”

For Baca, accustomed to waking at 4 a.m. to do farm chores, basic training was not a difficult transition. “I felt grateful to be there,” he said. “At least there wasn’t alfalfa sticking to my neck and stickers and snakes out in the field. Honestly, it wasn’t so bad.”

He said he soon realized the bare minimum would not be tolerated; a lesson he’s never forgotten.

“From that point on, I like to think I had a lot of success, a realization you have to focus and discipline yourself and the results will come,” said Baca, 51.

His past informs his work as a legislator, Baca said. As leader of the Senate Republicans — who are outnumbered 27-15 by Democrats — he said he relies on his military training to lead, cooperate (when possible) and do his best to get the job done.

“You learned to deal with each other’s imperfections, and they learned to deal with mine and form a cohesive team to complete the mission we were assigned,” he said of his time in the service. 

Asked to sum up how he feels about his military service in a single word, Baca didn’t hesitate.

“Pride,” he said. 

Sen. Harold Pope, D-Albuquerque, U.S. Air Force, 1993-1997; 2002-2018

Growing up in Pueblo, Colo., Sen. Harold Pope saw few positive role models who looked like him — he is Black — and instinctively knew if he didn’t make a move into the military, he might get into trouble. 

A brush with the law convinced him he had to take control of his life. Uncles who were military veterans told him to join the Air Force, and he did — signing up to be a dental assistant.

His 20-year plus career in the military moved him to an array of fields that helped him to grow both personally and professionally.

Comparing what he does now to his time both as an enlisted man and an officer, Pope said he never forgets he’s “here [in the Capitol] to serve your community. In the military, you serve the American people.”

The military service helps while dealing with the sometimes difficult legislative environment. He finds people who don’t agree with his political views pay him respect for the loyalty he gave to his country. His military bearing, he said, helps him keep his composure during testy debates on the floor. 

Pope, 49, said he is proud that while the military allowed him to get away from his past, it moved him forward as well.

When he took his oath of loyalty while in uniform, he said he suddenly understood the enormity of what he was doing.

“You understand the ramifications that you could go to war at any time or be deployed,” he said. “Then it hits you about that personal sacrifice and that selfless service you signed up for. You take pride in that.”

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