‘We just think it’s the right thing at the right time for the right reasons.’ —Secretary Jack Fox, New Mexico Department of Veterans Services
State officials gave a number of reasons for shifting management away from Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department (EMNRD) State Parks Division to the New Mexico Department of Veterans Services (NMDVS) but the simplest explanation is this: It’s just a better fit.
During a town hall meeting Thursday (Jan. 12) in Angel Fire, State Cemetery Director Tom Wagner, NMDVS Secretary Jack Fox, Deputy Secretary Alan Martinez, EMNRD Secretary-Designate Ken McQueen, and State Parks Division Director Christy Tafoya presented details about the proposed transition.
Wagner told attendees everyone was careful to reach out to the David Westphall Veterans Foundation, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial State Park Friends Group, the National Veterans Wellness and Healing Center in Angel Fire, and member of the community about the proposed switch.
Several noted the contributions made by State Parks and memorial manager Kate German, including to the chapel, roadway, parking lots and visitor center. Wagner noted the discussion began when Angel Fire was chosen as the location for one of four new veterans cemeteries in the state.
State Park’s mission is education and outreach and recreation, Wagner noted, adding a cemetery would be a significant drift from that mission.
As a result, Fox said, “When Christy Tafoya came to me, I immediately said, ‘We have to do it.'”
As the 50th Anniversary of the nation’s first Vietnam Memorial nears, Fox added, “We just think it’s the right thing at the right time for the right reasons.”
McQueen told the audience last year the Memorial greeted about 45,000 visitors, including during key events like the annual Memorial Day Commemoration, Veterans Day, Independence Day and Run For The Wall.
Fox said the Memorial will continue its current programs and also augment services for veterans.
Angel Fire Veteran M. Jay Mitchell, Cabinet Secretary for the New Mexico Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management (DHSEM) and Vice President of the David Westphall Veterans Foundation, asked Fox, “Can you give us a list of things that have to happen between now and July (the anticipated transfer date)?”
The first step is a joint resolution from both legislative branches in the upcoming state session, Fax said. “We think this is not a difficult challenge. It would not make sense to have two state agencies (State Parks and Cemeteries) working side by side with different missions.”
Fox urged members of the community to express support for the proposal during the upcoming legislative session, though he added, “I have to say everyone we’ve talked to has been very supportive. This is a budget-neutral proposition.”
The cemetery should be built in the next 2 to 3 years, then Veterans Services will consider adding additional services such as having a Veterans Services officer on site.
“We’re not going to change everything overnight,” Wagner said.
One veteran noted he would like to be buried in Angel Fire then asked, “What happens if we pass on before the cemetery is completed? Can we be buried at the Santa Fe cemetery then transferred here?”
Wagner said any veteran who has buried elsewhere could be transferred to the new cemetery at the family’s expense unless he or she had been cremated. “We have a pre-intent application, then the funeral home can notify us.”
After formally thanking German, who is departing for a warmer clime down south at Oliver Lee Memorial State Park, Fox was asked if the new director at the Memorial would be a veteran.
“Yes, with rare exceptions you have to be a veteran to work with the Department of Veterans Services,” Fox said. “I’ll guarantee you that.”
“Our whole idea is to take the foundation of the Memorial and what State Parks has done and build on it.”
The formal management transition should take place sometime around 4th of July weekend.