Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

U.S. Navy veteran takes command of Santa Fe National Cemetery | Local News

Where some might see a dead field, Victor L. Vasquez sees 85 acres of questions.

Every tombstone in Santa Fe National Cemetery that Vasquez works as director is like an unknown or untold story – one waiting to be revealed, even if the details are sketchy at best, he said.

“I look at the tombstones and say, ‘This is history,'” said the 60-year-old US Navy veteran as he patrolled the site on Wednesday morning.

He ponders why a soldier who served in combat during World War II received a Distinguished Service Medal, while the one buried next to him who fought in the same conflict received a Medal of Honor.

One of the tombstones simply says “Leepie Indian Boy”.

“That’s all we know,” said Vasquez as he looked at the headstone.

But he wants to know more.

The cemetery is full of stories, mysteries, and myths, which is one of the reasons it draws a lot of casual visitors, he said.

And for Vasquez, a proud 18-year-old US Navy veteran who’s worked as a hospital paramedic, it’s important that the place be run as a military operation – much like on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier, where everyone has a specific job to do has certain amount of time to make sure the mission goes smoothly.

Call him the administrator of the cemetery where more than 68,000 veterans and their family members are buried. It’s a place that gets extra attention and meaning on Veterans Day.

“That’s why we’re here to take care of these veterans and their families,” he said.

Its job is to make the place look inviting. He has an eye for noticing when a tombstone is misaligned in an otherwise perfectly upright row.

He also notices the lack of grass or good grass in many parts of the cemetery, which is on Guadalupe Street, not far from the Paseo de Peralta intersection.

“I want the grass to look nice … like a carpet,” he said. To this end, his soil crews have installed new water pumps and are preparing to use soil-nourishing root stimulants in the spring.

In 2023, his goal is to make the cemetery look military-grade so that it can earn National Cemetery Administration national shrine status – a nod to facilities that meet 21 meticulous guidelines for the maintenance and presentation of those facilities.

For Vasquez, who tends to stand at attention when he stops walking, it is important that a veterans cemetery exudes beauty, a sense of history, and a sense of peace that lets people know that their buried loved ones are cared for will.

“Looking good is a big deal,” he said. “People want it to look nice. It’s a trademark of a national cemetery.”

He also wants to expand the cemetery to accommodate more remains. Construction teams are busy building a five acre extension that should be ready by the end of the year. And Vasquez worked with members of local veterans committees to name his streets.

Among the suggested names for the Santa Fe Cemetery: Bataan Way, Flag Plaza, Doe Talkers Way and a number named after the Medal of Honor recipients buried there. Most veterans cemeteries have street names, he said.

Vasquez was born and raised in El Paso. As a child and teenager weaned from episodes of Perry Mason, he considered becoming a lawyer. But by the age of 18 he knew college was not for him, so he joined the US Navy in 1979. “I knew if I didn’t do anything I would get into trouble,” he said.

He spent most of his time in the Navy, which was part of US naval units and served in Japan, Thailand, the Philippines, and San Diego, among others. An injury caused him to accept a medical discharge after 18 years in uniform.

His years of service taught him a sense of responsibility. “It taught me that if you give your word you must keep it,” he said.

After serving, he worked for both Boeing and a cell phone company, while graduating from Edmonds College, Washington State and the State University of New York, Albany, with degrees in humanities and computer information systems.

After a period of unemployment, his ten-year-old wife, Elaine, pushed him to pursue a career in a national cemetery.

“She told me, ‘You can’t stay home all day,’” he recalls.

Vasquez began his cemetery career in 2014 at Fort Bliss National Cemetery in Texas, where he worked as a janitor and later as a foreman. He found the cemetery environment “peaceful,” he said.

His appointment to Santa Fe National Cemetery is his first position as director, he said. It began on June 6th – the anniversary of D-Day in World War II.

He moved into the local box from 1895, which was reserved for cemetery directors. Apart from the modern furniture, the building is like stepping back into 1895. There is no internet, no television, no heating other than a fireplace. He said he decided to live there after speaking to someone who told him that the cemetery directors who stay in the job the longest are the ones who live at this lodge, which is being renovated and modernized in the spring target.

Vasquez said he wanted to play his career in Santa Fe National Cemetery. Though former directors stayed for only a year or a few – they sign a mobility agreement that means they can be transferred at will – he told his staff that he was committed to staying for five years.

Looking at a neatly aligned row of tombstones, he said the cemetery makes an important statement.

“Just because you die doesn’t mean you’re forgotten,” he said. “Even when you’re buried, you still have a story. And if this story is passed on, you keep this spirit alive. “

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