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A little later, as I drove west on U.S. 70, I could see a man and a woman raising the American flag at the Animal Services Center of the Mesilla Valley on Bataan Memorial. They stopped when the flag reached half-staff.
I had only been in the car 5 minutes and already witnessed three important reminders about America and about Las Cruces.
Foremost, I was reminded of the 13 U.S. servicemembers who had died the night before in a suicide bombing in Afghanistan. There were 11 Marines, one sailor and one soldier. Most of them were in their early 20s.
Secondly, I was reminded how Americans generally, and Las Crucens specifically, care for and respect their military members and their service.
Thirdly, because the Animal Services Center is on Bataan Memorial, I was reminded of another time when American fighting forces faced death and violence at enemy hands. The infamous death march in the Philippines took place nearly 70 years ago in April 1942, when U.S. troops – including a high number of New Mexicans - were forced by their Japanese captors to walk a 65-mile trek to prison camps. Many didn’t make it.
These were somber reminders, yet they made me proud of our service men and women, then and now. I also felt a sense of pride in Las Cruces, which never seems to forget these moments of sacred importance.
Less than two hours later, I was visiting with Chad Getz of Getz Funeral Home, who reminded me of the local reaction to the February 2020 death of Sgt. 1st Class Antonio Rey Rodriguez, a Las Crucen. Rodriguez was also serving in Afghanistan, and was one of two Special Forces soldiers killed in an attack.
When Rodriguez’s body was returned to Las Cruces, and made its way through town for the memorial services, the turnout was remarkable. People lined the streets with flags and signs honoring the sergeant, a 2009 graduate of Mayfield High School.
Getz said Rodriguez’s military colleagues, who had come to accompany the body, were awestruck at the outpouring in his hometown.
We here in Las Cruces aren’t surprised by such things, because that’s just what we do.
However, we may not appreciate the rarity of such sincere gestures.
Dozens of times over the years, I’ve written in this space about the overwhelming generosity of Las Crucens, and how we respond time and time again to help people in need. The response is that much more dramatic given the fact we live in one of the poorer counties in the country.
My youngest daughter recently traveled to Chicago to help a friend who is moving there for college.
“I knew that people in Las Cruces were nice, but I didn’t realize how nice until I spent a few days away from here,” she said. She wasn’t knocking Chicagoans, necessarily. Overall, she had a good experience. It’s just that, compared to anyone anywhere, Las Crucens tend to stand out for their friendliness and generosity.
I grew up among very friendly people in Oklahoma. But they can’t top, however, my experiences in southern New Mexico. Having lived 13 years each in Alamogordo and Las Cruces, I’m convinced we have a concentration of some of the biggest hearts and best people in America.