American Legion honor guard


Gary Bland gave the command to start: “Fall in, troops!” Ten members of the honor guard of American Legion Lucero Y Nava Post 12 stood at attention, three with rifles at the ready for a gun volley and one with a bugle for playing taps.

Family members with loved ones buried in the Santa Fe National Cemetery sat in silence nearby during the ceremony honoring their fallen fathers, mothers, siblings and other relatives or friends.

Larry Betancourt of Albuquerque, a U.S. Army veteran, was among those who had gathered at the national cemetery on a mid-October morning for the quarterly commemoration of several military veterans who were interred in the previous three months but did not have a burial with honors.

Watching the American Legion Post 12 honor guard at work, he noted the group brings pride and dignity to such events.

“For them, too, it brings a sense of home to honor the men and women we served with,” Betancourt said of the honor guard members. “They represent the hearts of the families.”

The all-volunteer honor guard marches to and from memorial sites within the spacious national cemetery almost unnoticed, breaking the quiet at a burial only when members fire off volleys of blanks from 12-gauge shotguns.

They do not expect recognition, thanks or applause, several members said.

“It’s a matter of pride to do this,” said Frank Gomez, an Army veteran from the Vietnam War era who serves on the honor guard.

Many of the honor guard members are Vietnam veterans, said Post 12 Commander Carmela Quintana. They attend about six to eight services per week — more than 400 a year.

“If a fallen veteran is buried without family, they step in to be that family,” she added.

Quintana nominated the honor guard for recognition as one of The Santa Fe New Mexican’s 10 Who Made a Difference for 2022, noting its dedication to other members of the military and their families, not only at the Santa Fe National Cemetery but also throughout the region.

“They continually impress me with their selfless commitment to honoring deceased veterans,” Quintana wrote of the honor guard members in her nomination letter. “What they do is a comfort to the families of [fallen veterans], and I know because they helped my family in 2021.”

While the guard receives a stipend for its services from the New Mexico Department of Veterans Services, Quintana wrote, American Legion Post 12 returns this money to the community in the form of donations to nonprofits such as Kitchen Angels, the Interfaith Community Shelter at Pete’s Place, St. Elizabeth Shelters, The Food Depot and the Santa Fe

High School Naval Junior ROTC.

Honor guard member Terry Becker, a Vietnam-era Navy veteran who serves as the American Legion Post 12 adjutant, said the post formed in 2018 with a goal of initiating community projects — including the city’s popular Hometown Heroes banner program — and has about 45 members.

Hnor guard members pay for their own uniforms, a crisp and simple combination: blue shirts, black caps, dark khaki pants and black shoes.

They chose to eschew more military-style uniforms so their garb does not “take away from the meaning of the service,” Becker said.

Members of the group have drilled for their ceremonial duties for years and rarely conduct refresher courses.

“We all did it in the military,” said member Dan Nava, a

Navy veteran who served in the early 1970s.

Victor L. Vasquez, a Navy veteran who serves as director of the Santa Fe National Cemetery, commended the American Legion Post 12 honor guard members.

“They are a strong part of the cemetery, although they are volunteers,” Vasquez said. “They are always here for our ceremonies. They’re an asset to us.”

While each branch of the military has its own honor guard team, he said, those guards aren’t always able to attend local military burial services. The American Legion Post 12 honor guard members often fill in, performing duties to help send off fallen comrades with the distinction they deserve.

One challenge for the local post and other veterans organizations nationwide is decreasing numbers of members as elder veterans die off and younger ones are hesitant to join.

This affects the honor guard membership, too, Becker and others said.

Younger veterans in American Legion Post 12 have jobs and aren’t able to attend burial services, almost always held on weekdays, they said, and some of the older members have health conditions preventing them from taking part.

Mike Luna, an Army veteran, said at 65 he is the youngest member of the honor guard. If more members of the post don’t join the guard, he warned, “this is going to go away.”

For now, the honor guard has at least 10 regular members who dutifully perform at military burials to pay tribute to men and women who have served.

“We’re the happiest here in the cemetery,” said Gloria Valdez, a civilian member of the Post 12 honor guard whose father survived the Bataan Death March during World War II.

“It doesn’t matter what the weather does — rain, snow, sunshine,” she said. “This is the place we are most calm. This is the place we belong, honoring the dead.”






Santa Fe New Mexican