From MIA to VFW: Questa vet survived the Great War trenches

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Veterans in small communities like Questa often have a major impact in their home town, especially after returning from major conflicts. The same can be said of Ezequiel Rael, who returned from World War I to thrive and pass his legacy on to his family.

Joe Rael of Questa recalls that his father was, for the most part, a quiet and reserved man who rarely brought up his service in combat. Spending much of his time on the ranch and farm, Ezequiel would often pass the time by giving small lessons learned or stories from the war, but never went in-depth into his experiences in England and France in the trenches. After mistakenly being pronounced missing in action for three months, wounded by nerve gas and returning safely to Questa to his teary-eyed mother Inocencia, his service has a lasting impression on the veteran's community as well as within his family.

" 'It was a very tough war' he would say," said Joe Rael.

Ezequiel Rael enlisted in the U.S. Army in Taos on June 4, 1917, and was transported to several bases in the U.S. before being deployed overseas first to England, then to France where he saw a majority of his combat. As a machine gunner, Ezequiel Rael would fire massive machine guns which he called "repeaters." Often close to the front lines, Ezequiel Rael's memories of the trench war were of the terrible conditions on the field including the food and the damp, muddy fields. He would tell his children of the constant fighting and work that was done to maintain the allied positions.

Ezequiel told Joe how surprised he was with the other men in his unit and said he was more "grown up" than many of them. Growing up in farm and ranch territory in Questa and caring for herds of sheep from age 13, Joe said his father was more physically prepared for service than some of the others from cities.

"I'm really proud of my father, because he was so strong and dedicated," Joe said. "He was already a man from the time he was a young boy."

Due to an error in role call, Ezequiel Rael was not included on the role after a mission in which he had an altercation with enemy soldiers. This error lead to his regiment believing he was missing in action and the official letter was sent all the way back to his family in Questa.

For three months, the family mourned the loss of their son and their heads were held proud for the service of their son in the war. While sorting out the error, Ezequiel sent a letter home that he was alive; he was met with an abundance of hugs and tears when he finally made it home on the back of a Model - T Ford. Using compensation from his service, he attended welding school in Albuquerque where he purchased a Harley Davidson motorcycle, which he used to make herding sheep easier when he returned home to Questa.

According to discharge papers, Ezequiel Rael sustained mustard gas wounds on Aug. 2, 1918, three months before the end of the war. The yellow cloud of gas scarred his respiratory system which caused him to develop a cough he would carry for the rest of his life. He was told of the end of the war by a group of soldiers while sides continued to exchange gunfire on the front line.

Joe Rael has collected and saved much of his father's memorabilia and awards from his service, but is still waiting for two medals from Washington that will be added to the collection. Ezequiel was joined in service by his brother Jose "J.P. "Prajedes, who was stationed in Texas, according to Joe.

"He didn't want me to (enlist), and I didn't go," Joe said. "He said 'I need you here on the farm.'

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