Santa Fe 400th: Sense of duty spans generations

Like many in Santa Fe, the Chavez family has deep ties to the military

Kate Nash | The New Mexican

Alexine Chavez was a senior in high school when she passed by a military recruiting center on St. Michael’s Drive.

With a spur-of-the-moment feeling egging her on, she did a U-turn and headed into the center.

Inside, the Air Force recruiter persuaded her to join, and she was hooked, joining not once but twice since then.

More than nine years later, Chavez, 27, has seen two tours in Iraq, plus deployments to Saudi Arabia and Japan, and countless weekends of training.

While her decision to join seemed spontaneous, she had a grandfather who served in World War II, a father who put in 20 years with the New Mexico National Guard, and an uncle who served in Vietnam — the service might just be in her blood.

Her contribution to the country, and the contributions of her father, Ray, and grandfather, Refugio, who joined her in a recent interview, represent the city’s military history dating back more than 60 years. In a broader sense, they also embody the men and women of the City Different who have served since Santa Fe was founded 400 years ago.

The military history of Santa Fe — capital of a state with more than 200,000 veterans — includes tales of the Pueblo Revolt, a role in the Civil War, sons lost in Korea. It is flush with stories of those who survived a death march in the Philippines, of Buffalo Soldiers and Rough Riders, of those who went to Afghanistan and of a strong anti-war movement. It includes the yarn of Pancho Villa and the creation of the atomic bomb.

And it includes the Chavezes.

Each signed up for the military in a different era and for distinct reasons.

Each had unique experiences.

And each puts a face on Santa Fe’s sacrifice.

Refugio: POW in WWII

Refugio Chavez was 20 and living in Santa Fe in 1940, without a stable job in sight. With an eighth-grade education, he had been working construction when he could.

The Army seemed like his best option, paying $30 a month. He enlisted and was shipped off to World War II with the 8th Cavalry Division, against his father’s better judgment. To sign up for the training, he needed parental permission.

“My dad signed for me,” said Chavez, who recently turned 90. “He didn’t want to do it, but finally he signed.”

In France, Chavez was captured and taken to Germany. He was held for 18 months. For meals, he got two bowls of cabbage soup a day. He did all right, he said, even without meat or bread, but worried about his family in New Mexico.

“My mom didn’t know where I was. At first they got a telegram that I was missing in action, then that I was a POW.”

When he was liberated in 1945, he said, he had never been so happy to see American soldiers. He then was able to call his parents back home to give them the news. It would be several more months before he would see them in person, given the logistics of returning to Santa Fe after being discharged.

So much has changed since that war, Chavez said, including the number of troops who come back alive. Some 2,263 New Mexicans died in World War II.

“Thanks to God I came back,” he said. “I didn’t think I was going to make it. They didn’t kill me. I was lucky.”

Lucky to be alive, Chavez said, and grateful to be back home.

The first thing he did was eat a steak, he recalled, then rest, then look for work. One of more than 50,000 New Mexicans who served in World War II, he ended up as a mechanic working the bowling machines at the now-closed Coronado Lanes.

Later, when his son Pete went to fight in Vietnam, Refugio Chavez would watch television news every night for word of the U.S. troops.

By coincidence, Refugio one night saw Pete in the background of a scene a reporter had filed from Cambodia.

Although Pete had been sending letters to his family with some information on his time in the service, there was such a lag time, and Refugio often wondered whether his son was OK.

He was.

“By 10 o’clock, the whole neighborhood knew about it,” said Ray Chavez, Pete’s brother, as he gestured up and down the Third Street neighborhood where Refugio still lives.

These days, Pete doesn’t like to talk about Vietnam. And Refugio doesn’t watch the news as much.

Ray: Better off in Guard

Ray Chavez thought about the Army after his brother Pete joined. But Pete made him change his mind on a trip back home six months before he was discharged.

“He said, ‘You don’t want to join the Army. If you can join the National Guard, you’d be better off,’ ” Ray Chavez said.

So in March of 1971, Ray joined the Guard, where his brother also ended up when he came back from Vietnam.

Ray put in six years, finished his advanced individual training with the supply section for a heavy-equipment maintenance company, then got out in 1977 with no intention of going back.

Again, Pete made him change his mind.

“He said, ‘Go back and finish your 20 years,’ ” Ray Chavez said.

He was 40 at the time. The physical training was the hardest part.

But Chavez, now 57, was glad to see some of the old friends he’d had in the Guard, something he had missed.

At work, he played a key role in keeping the military equipment going, ordering all the mechanical parts needed. He trained with Army members and traveled to Germany, Italy and Panama for annual training.

One of the highlights for him was running a whole supply unit during a drill weekend in Camp Dodge, Iowa.

“I was kind of thrown in there,” he recalled. “Usually, when you go for drill weekend, you kind of help them out.”

Then deployments to Iraq started coming for his unit, something in which Ray Chavez wasn’t interested.

He switched to the 93rd troop command, a nondeployable unit that supports those who are sent overseas.

“Deployments for me are good for a single person,” said Ray Chavez, who has two daughters and a son.

He retired in 2002 and now works in the Human Resources Department at the National Guard.

Military life has changed for him, too, now that his daughter Alexine is in the Air Force — something he said he at first discouraged.

“I told her to join the Guard and get a taste before you decide to join,” he said. “I didn’t feel comfortable with her doing it … being all the deployments, I figured she doesn’t belong being exposed to that kind of danger. She surprises me, though.”

To get through Alexine’s deployments, Ray Chavez looked forward to hearing from her, just as he once had waited for news from his brother, and just as his grandparents waited for news of his father.

“I just prayed and thought, ‘Let God take care of her,’ ” Ray Chavez said.

Along with e-mail instead of telegrams, and with cross-oceanic flights instead of boat rides, attitudes toward military members have also changed, he said — even in a town that’s known for its active peace movement and dotted typically with anti-war signs.

“I think people in general have made an extra effort to recognize our work. When my brother came back from Vietnam, they didn’t have anything … anybody waiting. I think the recognition has changed.”

Alexine: 9/11 marked start

Alexine Chavez knew she didn’t want to go to college, so as her time at Capital High was ending in 2001, she was searching for her path.

The stop at the recruiting center set her on her way. At first, her parents didn’t know anything about her plans.

“Finally I told them I am going to join, and they said, ‘What?’ My mom was really … she didn’t want me to go.”

But go she did. And she became a member of the U.S. Air Force Security Forces, which provide base security.

Basic training was supposed to start Sept. 11 of that year. Because of the terrorist attacks of that day, however, the training started a week late.

Still, Chavez went. During her nine years in the Air Force, including six on active duty and three in the reserves, she went twice to Iraq, and to Japan and Saudi Arabia.

If her father and grandfather hadn’t been in the service, she might not have known so much about being deployed, about serving a country from thousands of miles away.

“It actually did help. I don’t think I would have known anything about the military,” she said.

She got out of active duty in early 2007, after her first tour in Iraq, but that didn’t last. Within a few months, she joined the reserves.

“I wasn’t going to go back into the military. I decided to be a civilian, but I missed it a lot and I felt like I need to be in the military,” Chavez said.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was kind of lost, I guess. I needed to get into the reserves to transition to civilian life again.”

By 2008, she was back in Iraq for six months. She kept in touch with Santa Fe through the Internet. Her family kept her linked in to life back home.

“I missed the food bad,” she said.

At training in Missouri, Chavez’s mom, Santanita, sent her green chile. It wasn’t the same.

“It was in baggies and on dry ice.”

To Alexine Chavez, one of a growing number of women in the Air Force, life in the military is nothing new.

To her grandfather, it’s a bit of novelty. The women of his generation played a different role in the military.

“They were nurses,” he said.

At the ready for 400 years

The story of the Chavez family is similar to that of many in the Guard, said the New Mexico National Guard adjutant general, Maj. Gen. Kenny Montoya.

“Almost all of us have a father and grandfather who served,” he said. “Traditionally in New Mexico, I think it’s part of our culture that we have to serve.”

Working for the Guard is also increasingly popular, Montoya said. Its numbers have increased for the past few years, helping the Guard meet its recruiting goals. It has a membership this year of 4,050 and will be able to add several new units of about 180 people, including a military police company, a special operations unit and an intelligence unit, Montoya said.

Many of the new recruits sign up straight out of high school, Montoya said, a shift in recent years from men and women on active duty or other walks of life who joined the Guard in their older years.

“Younger people are seeing the Guard is doing everything the active-duty (soldiers) do and more at home. If people in Chama are snowed in and elderly people need their medicine, the Guard is going to get it.”

The seeming ease with which Montoya is signing up new members in New Mexico appears to track with national recruiting numbers.

According to information published by the Department of Defense for the 2010 fiscal year, both the Air and Army Guards had successful recruiting missions.

The Air National Guard signed up 6,983 people, 109 percent of its goal of 6,430, and 57,204 people joined the Army National Guard, 95 percent of its goal of 60,000, the Defense Department reported.

The Army Guard had 362,015 members, while the Air Guard had 107,676. Both branches had retention rates above 90 percent.

Montoya said the National Guard system traces its roots back to New Mexico and to Don Juan de Oñate, who, when he came through the state in 1598, left some of his troops behind, telling them they were no longer on active duty.

It was also the Guard that played a key role when Villa crossed into New Mexico.

“He raided the regular Army, but it was the Guard who was called out to track him down,” Montoya said.

While more might be signing up with the Guard, and while the work is rewarding for many, it comes with a somber task. The men and women of the Guard this year alone have buried 600 veterans, many who served in World War II.

“Our World War II vets are passing away in large numbers, and that’s really hard seeing great New Mexicans that you looked up to your whole life,” Montoya said. “That generation is going away.”

Published Nov. 06, 2010.