Tribute to a Vietnam Era Veteran and Public Servant

Interview by Sue Wolinsky

MEET RUDY MARTINEZ

MILITARY SERVICE: Rodolpho “Rudy” Martinez joined the USAF on August 28, 1967, so he could learn something new, a new trade or skill. The Vietnam War was in full swing. Three months later, there would be ~500,000 US troops in Vietnam. His mother was against it for her hard-working son.  He had been a paper boy and a gas jockey-turned-mechanic. She knew he had a bright future awaiting him. 

But he persisted. During basic training, Rudy received his US Army draft notice in the mail. His sergeant took care of it by tearing it up.  That act confirmed his decision to enlist in the USAF. Following stints at McChord Air Force Base near Tacoma supporting staff assignments in the 318th Fighter Interceptor Squadron and the 483rd Military Airlift Command, he received his orders to ship out to Vietnam in November 1969.

This New Mexican from the southwest part of the state was about to spend a year of his life supporting the US action in southeast Asia. As he sat in the three-hop, 23-hour flight, he thought about what he would see when he landed. Visions of bodies in the streets at Cam Ranh Bay, where he would be stationed, haunted him. (The bay has historically been an important military site as an inlet from the South China Sea in southeastern Vietnam. It was one of four USAF bases built and utilized during the Vietnam War.) After he landed, his preconceived notion was not confirmed; but that vision was quickly overtaken by the near-constant high alert status that demanded his readiness 24-7.

Rudy refers to himself as a jack of all trades during his time at Cam Ranh Bay. He was a member of the Security Police, frequently assigned to the perimeter, watching for incoming artillery. He was also responsible for issuing weapons, as well as creating flight plans and providing supplies for the fire stations.  He got to know the flight crews, which made it all the more difficult when he would learn when any of the planes had been shot down.

Comms were different in the military then, Rudy said.  Talking with family while in Vietnam was a rare occurrence. Only one time was Rudy able to talk to his family via a ham radio.  He filled the gap with letters, making them a priority in his day, until hisreturn to Kirkland Air Force Base in Albuquerque in December of 1970.

He was one of the lucky ones going home alive. By the time the war ended, 58,000 US soldiers were killed and more than 150,000 were wounded. But going home was not an easy transition for many returning US soldiers, who when they returned one-by-one, were treated very unfairly by the American people.  Reflecting on that difficult time, Rudy said, “Upon return home, many times we were referred as ‘baby killers’ and at times shunned by certain groups of people.” Plus, VA benefits for returning soldiers were difficult to access.  Rudy knows that many returning soldiers at that time showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); but it would take until 1980 for PTSD to be recognized as a mental health condition and 1989 before the VA was authorized by Congress to treat PTSD in returning soldiers.

JOBS AND POLITICS AT HOME:  Rudy returned home to Bayard, NM. In 1972, he became a card-carrying member of the IBEW electrical union; he still has an active card.  He was treasurer for the union for 20 years. He used the GI Bill to get his business degree from Western NM University. Later he became Facility Manager at the Fort Bayard Medical Center under two private owners and finally as a contractor to the State of New Mexico when the state opted to use contract services at the facility.

But public service would become part of Rudy’s destiny. He joined the local fire department and became a trainer.  Part of his responsibility was to report fire department statistics to the city council monthly.  After a short while, a city councilwoman who had decided to run for mayor asked Rudy to run for the city council.  He ran and he won. Two years later, he successfully ran for mayor.  Then he was elected to the county commission and soon became chair.

In 2007, Rudy was appointed to finish the term of the recently deceased State Representative Manuel Herrera in House District 39. Rudy successfully ran for re-election through 2020 with only a one-term gap in service. He was proud of his work as chair of the Military Affairs & Veterans Interim Committee and for enabling the rebuilding of the Fort Bayard Medical Center, among many other successes.

Rudy became a champion of underserved populations during his years in public service.  That wasn’t his initial intent, he reflected recently, but it was a goal that grew in importance over his years in public service. “My only regret is that I didn’t get to help as many people as I would have liked to,” he said.

SERVICE TO VETERANS AND VETERANS ORGANIZATIONS:  Rudy’s experiences in the military paved the way for him to give back to his fellow veterans and their families. He is a member of the Viet Nam Veterans of America, 358th Chapter, having served as treasurer for 18 years. He was nominated by his fellow members from Chapter 328 and received the Profile of Courage Award for service to his community and veterans. He was also a member of the American Legion for a while and a life member of Chapter 1 Disabled American Veterans.

Rudy joined our Caucus – officially named the Democratic Party of New Mexico Veterans and Military Families Caucus – in 2020. His leadership in the caucus’ advocacy work has been and remains stellar. His political and advocacy experience in the 50+ years since his military service has placed him in a unique position to continue to work toward improving the lives of veterans and their families.

Looking to the future, Rudy sees the following four areas where federal and state veterans’ services need to be improved:

  1. MENTAL HEALTH CARE: The VA needs to provide more access to mental health care and simplify the documentation required for a military-service-related PTSD diagnosis. For example, to get certified with PTSD, a veteran had to track where and when they experienced the PTSD, the people they were with, etc.  “It’s been very hard to do,” he said.
  2. TRANSPORTATION TO MEDICAL APPOINTMENTS: The VA and the state need to improve transportation availability for veterans living in rural areas in the state. In spite of a new state-run grant to provide medical transportation in nine counties, many veterans still suffer hardships to get the medical care they need.  For example, he said, in Silver City the Disabled American Veterans van (driven by a volunteer) picks up veterans in the hospital parking lot at 1 am, as the start of a long, many-stop journey to Albuquerque for medical specialty appointments.  Stops are made in Deming, Hatch, Truth or Consequences, Socorro, and maybe Belen and Los Lunas before arriving at the Albuquerque VA in the early morning.  The return trip begins after the last appointment at the end of the day, with stops in reverse order. The trip for Silver City area veterans (many of whom are older and in frail health) could last for 12 hours or more.
  3. CONVINCE VETERANS TO APPLY FOR THE SERVICES THEY’VE EARNED: “We all must try to convince our veterans that they’ve earned the right to medical and other care available to them, because of their military service. Many veterans do not trust the government; they think the government hasn’t done anything for them and many just don’t want to go through the hoops to get the care,” Rudy said.
  4. ENCOURAGE LOCAL PROVIDERS TO ACCEPT VA INSURANCE: “In rural areas, especially,” Rudy said, “we need to find more local medical providers who will accept VA payment.” The Community OutPatient Clinic run by the VA only handles routine checkups, shots, etc.  Any specialty care needs to be written as an order, but veterans, especially in rural areas, rarely can get that care locally.

Rudy, along with other local veterans’ advocates, is also working to expand the Veterans Court to more areas in New Mexico.  The court, modeled after Drug Court, is designed to help veterans convicted of minor offenses to meet the terms of their sentence and to get help.