New Mexico Is Open For Restaurants, Protests — But Not For This Lifelong Army Family To Bury Master Sgt. Velasquez
Master Sgt. Joseph Wynne Velasquez served his country in the U. S. Army for more than 20 years. He deployed once to Macedonia, twice to Iraq, and then to Afghanistan. He has six children, a grandson, and a wife of 19 years.
Between him and his brother Phillip James Velasquez, Jr., their mother Wilma Maria endured a son in a combat zone for nearly eight long years, keeping a yellow ribbon tied in the front yard of the trailer she shares with her husband and the boys’ father Phillip James, a San Felipe Pueblo Indian who served 20 years himself, including three tours in Vietnam.
Three weeks ago Friday, Joseph was struck and killed in a hit and run walking home on a scenic country road north of Ft. Benning, where he oversaw courses for the Military Adviser Training Program — a new program, his brother boasts, for which Joseph “technically wrote the book.”
Over the past two weeks, politicians have broken their own rules to join the millions grieving, protesting, and sometimes later rioting in the streets, remembering George Floyd, a man allegedly murdered by a police officer. Elsewhere in America, a family is barred from gathering at the Santa Fe National Cemetery to lay their son, brother, husband, father, and grandfather to rest with the honors he earned, deserves, and was promised by his country.
“I love my brother,” Phillip, 40, tells me over the phone. “I mean, we shared the same bathwater together. Fifteen months apart. Almost twins! You know, everybody thought he was my older brother everywhere because he was taller.”
“My brother and I joined the military back in 1999 after living a life in that kind of ghetto hood, what Albuquerque used to call the War Zone and now they call it the International Zone. And out of all the people that we used to hang with, me and my brother and another guy named Cowboy were the only ones to join the military and I would say about 70 percent of them either ended up dead or in prison … but I never thought that my brother would be in a position where he was greeted as a master sergeant and offered the position as the operations sergeant major for the Military Advisor Training Academy, which he technically wrote the book on for their course instruction.”
“I got pictures of us back when we joined,” he laughs. “Man, we were so skinny.”
When the family brought Joseph home to rest, he was greeted as a war hero. The Albuquerque Police Department saluted from the overpasses, with the motorcade and supporters including New Mexico State Troopers, Air Force Special Investigation officers, the American Legion, Freedom Riders, and the 377th Air Wing. The 515th Transportation Company did an honors service, with Sgt. Major Burkhart telling the family that while there were coronavirus guidelines in place, honor and respect were due and everything would be done to make sure their loved one was honored as he deserved.
But then the trouble started.
The director at the cemetery told them the governor had guidelines in place: Five family members would be permitted to leave the parking lot to say goodbye. This wasn’t acceptable: Joseph was leaving six children alone, not including his wife, parents, and brother, who is married with children of his own.
So they waited. On June 1, the governor allowed restaurant dining room food service to return at 50 percent capacity, and on June 9, the Department of Veteran’s Affairs resumed limited military honors and a return to funeral services within local guidelines.
When they tried again, the family was told the new order would allow for six family members to stand six feet apart from each other in a tent they had not asked for. The honor guard would be limited to three soldiers instead of the customary seven firing a three-shot 21-gun salute. His widow would not be permitted to hold her children when they accepted their father’s flag.
“‘I’m not trying to argue with you,’ Phillip bitterly remembers the director telling him when he asked for their family circumstances to be considered last time they spoke. “‘Just listen to me.'”
The guidelines, she said, are from the governor.
“And,” Phillip paused, gathering his emotions, “to see all this, this ‘Breaking News: Governor has allowed for beer gardens to open up at 50 percent starting today… Starting Monday, indoor service at 50 percent…'”
While Joseph is his only blood brother, this isn’t the first time Phillip has buried a brother with honors. Over the past few years alone he’s had to bury three of the men he’d served on a scout team with in 2003, all lost to suicide.
“When I was in Afghanistan and one of my brothers died, all operations minus the major security operations ceased,” he recalls. “We had Australians, we had French, we had U.K., we German, we had American troops lined up on the tarmac. And I was the short guy of the pallbearer groups so I was in the back, but bag pipes played and there was a single aircraft C-130 that flew my brother home.”
“Now I’m here in the state of New Mexico. My brother’s not even two miles down the road and I’m getting all sorts of excuses of why I can’t give my brother the honorable service and burial that he is is entitled to. He was promised that in the event of death, this country will take care of you. Well, that was in the back of our minds because every time we were on deployment, that is the biggest consequence — we’re going to die or possibly die. And now we come home and we’re getting this; this feels like veterans coming back from Vietnam all over again, just because of this pandemic, just because people are scared. But we’re forgetting the veterans.”
“There are still people out there on deployment and we can’t service the guys that have died while we’re active duty — and have given everything they’ve got — and their families. Oh my God, my wife stresses out just thinking about the times where she didn’t know what was going on during my four deployments. And then I can only imagine what it’s like for my mom: Four deployments for me, his deployments, I mean shoot, there’s seven, eight years, and they’re just freaking out wondering, ‘Are my boys coming home?’ And now my mom is sitting at home wondering when we can actually bury my brother.”
Phillip, who retired a captain, introduced his brother to his wife Darlene, and the two were married 19 years ago — just a year after Phillip. They’re a tight-knit family, separated for the first decade of the 2000s by the calls of country, stations, and young families, but following a long-needed family reunion in 2010, their children were able to grow close when their fathers shared a station in Hawaii. While Phillip retired after 20 years — a full career — but for his brother, opportunity and the responsibility that came with it kept him in.
In the Army, he explains, “when you’re reliable, you take on responsibility — and he took it like the leader that he was, and he just had a great influence on a lot of people. I mean a great influence. I can’t even believe it but my brother was an ordained minister. I’ve seen him marry and put couples together on six different occasions; it’s great. When you’re in the military and you can’t really plan out a wedding, my brother told his soldiers, ‘I got you. You want me to marry you guys, I’ll marry you guys.’ My brother brought a lot of people together.”
But today, he says, he can’t even get a New Mexico politician on the phone to explain his case, having tried their congressmen, senators, and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
“Every time I call their office it’s either a ‘Due to COVID-19, we are doing social distancing work-from-home,’ whatever the case may be, ‘leave a message after the tone.’ And then the voicemail is full, so ‘goodbye.’ What the hell is that? I’m not a social media person, so I tried Twitter, I think I didn’t even do it right. I’ve contacted numerous representatives in the state of New Mexico with really no impact, contacted the local news stations Channel 4, 7 and 13, [an investigative journalist] — never received anything.
So he took to social media. On the evening of June 10, in frustration after weeks of turmoil, public mourning and politicians joining crowds of protesters, he wrote a long Facebook post on the struggle to simply bury his brother with the honors he deserved. He was frustrated and angry at the difference in treatment an American warrior has received when compared with Floyd, and it shines through, but also earnest about his family’s needs. And he takes ownership of that frustration, while making clear he believes the protests are for a good cause.
“I want to say I’ve let out a little bit of frustration, not to be disrespectful,” he tells me during our call. “I understand this country is in turmoil. I’ve seen major social gatherings for a good cause. However at the same time, they’re violating their own orders, some of these representatives partaking in some of these events, and by them doing so it just makes me feel like a us, as service members, gave an oath to this country to defend and we accepted the risk and so did our family members.”
His personal post began with a call to action for his fellow soldiers: “RANGER UP.” It has 159 shares, with countless others who don’t even know him sharing screengrabs or quoting it on their pages. Shaun Rieley, a friend who served with the Maryland National Guard before leaving for veterans advocacy in Washington, sent it to me. A buddy he’d served with in Iraq had previously served with Phillip in the 82nd Airborne before leaving for the Guard, and sent the note to Shaun.
“I don’t know Velasquez,” Shaun texted, “but I can put you in touch with my buddy who can get in touch with him.”
People care, and they want to take care of fellow soldiers.
“My understanding is they’re going to dedicate the graduation hall over at the Military Academy, Military Advisor Training Academy, in my brother’s name, so it’ll be Master Sgt. Joseph W. Velasquez Hall.”
“I don’t know if some of these people that are put in these [burial authority] positions ever experienced the kind of things that they have to serve, the kind of people they have to serve, but you put in somebody that’s buried several people, it’s like, ‘Look, I understand the guidelines, but please let me help your family go through this grieving process’ instead of making a frustrating roadblock and using one excuse or another to justify why you can’t get things done right here.”
“After learning of this matter, our office immediately contacted others in the delegation and learned that Rep. [Deb] Haaland and Sen. [Martin] Heinrich were actively working to resolve the issue with the Velasquez family, who are constituents of Rep. Haaland. Rep. Torres Small and our office pass along our sincerest condolences to the Velasquez family during this difficult time,” a spokeswoman for Rep. Xochitl Torres Small, who represents southern New Mexico, wrote in an email to The Federalist. “She and our team remain committed to serving veterans, service members, and their families, and stand willing to work with anyone to help resolve this matter.”
“During this challenging time, Rep. Torres Small believes that families, particularly families of veterans and service members, should have the opportunity to safely mourn together.”
“I am incredibly grateful to every military person and family who has served our country,” Rep. Deb Haaland, Phillip’s representative, responded late Sunday evening. “As the daughter of a Marine Corps Vietnam War Veteran who is buried at Arlington National Cemetery, I know how important it is for the family to honor our veterans when they pass away. The health of our communities is a top priority, and my office is working with the state and the family to see how we can be helpful.”
Calls and emails by The Federalist went unreturned from Rep. Ben Ray Luján, whose district includes the Santa Fe National Cemetery. Calls and emails were also not returned by the governor, who oversees the health guidelines, and Sens. Heinrich and Tom Udall.
Udall’s office was the only one in which Phillip says he was able to get a person to pick up the phone. The aide recorded a message and said it would be forwarded, but Phillip never heard back.
“I want to pay [myself] for the bugle, bagpipes, and drummer to sing ‘Amazing Grace,’ and so many people want to support this. But I’m getting pushback from the organizations that should be actually the ones leading this.”
In the meantime, the Velasquez family will wait to bury Joseph. They’re going to do this one right. He deserves it.