Retired Lt. Gen. Edward D. Baca, a Santa Fe native who rose through the ranks of the National Guard to become the first Hispanic to head the service's bureau in Washington, D.C., left a big legacy in Northern New Mexico.
Baca, who volunteered to serve in Vietnam, was an advocate of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Angel Fire and more recently lobbied the Veteran’s Administration on behalf of a proposed veterans cemetery in Taos. He was committed to raising awareness of the New Mexico National Guardsmen who held off the Japanese for five months on the islands of Bataan and Corregidor during WWII and those who survived the Bataan Death March, including some in Taos County. He ensured that Taos Feeds Taos, an annual project to provide meals to local people during the holidays, was able to use the National Guard Armory for packing and distributing hundreds of food boxes to the community. And while he served as adjutant general of the New Mexico National Guard under three governors, he helped many young people enter the service and start careers.
“He touched a lot of hearts here,” said Francis Cordova, who also retired from the national guard.
Baca died Sept. 15 after a battle with leukemia. He was 82.
Services will be livestreamed Monday (Sept. 21) at 10 a.m. from Prince of Peace Catholic Community in Albuquerque.
Baca was “a soldier’s soldier,” said his eldest child, retired Col. Brian Baca, who also made the National Guard his career. “The guard was my dad’s second family.”
“He left a legacy of commitment to his country, the service and his family.”
Building a career
Edward Baca was born in 1938 and grew up in Santa Fe. “He often said you could accomplish any goal if you were committed. He told everyone he came from a poor family in Santa Fe and rose to the top of the national guard just through hard work and dedication,” said Brent Jaramillo, Taos County’s manager, who became friends with Baca 15 years ago.
When Baca was a young man, he gave a speech at the Sisters of Loretto Academy about the dangers of cigarette smoking and afterward a snowball whacked him in the head as he walked across the campus. “That snowball was thrown by my mother Rita. That was the beginning of my parents’ story,” said Brian Baca.
He called her his “Yellow Rose of Texas.” The couple had been married 62 and a half years when Baca died.
They had seven children. Four, including one daughter, followed their dad into the military. Their youngest son Daniel, died five years ago in an accident, a tragedy that left Baca without words. “My dad eulogized many, many veterans over the years. He was an eloquent speaker,” said Brian Baca. “The one eulogy he couldn’t deliver was the one for my brother.”
Baca enlisted in the New Mexico Army National Guard in 1956 and was assigned to Charlie Battery, 726th Anti-Aircraft Artillery, according to a statement from the guard detailing his service. He graduated from Officer Candidate School in 1962 and became platoon leader of the 3631st Maintenance Company. He volunteered for active duty in Vietnam and returned to the New Mexico National Guard in 1966.
Baca was first appointed Adjutant General of New Mexico in 1983 by then Gov. Toney Anaya. He was subsequently reappointed to the role by governors Garrey Carruthers and Bruce King.
He is credited with “modernizing the New Mexico National Guard to include the deployment in New Mexico of the Army's only Roland Air Defense battalion as well as the fielding of Chaparral, Hawk and Patriot missile battalions,” according to a press release.
He also started a program within the New Mexico National Guard to work with local law enforcement to “fight the war on drugs and help prevent children from using drugs.”
The program was considered successful and adopted by several other states.
Cordova, who served in the New Mexico National Guard when Baca was adjutant general, said Baca often went to local schools to talk about the dangers of drugs.
Beyond that, Cordova said Baca ensured the National Guard was present at many events to honor veterans. “He always used to make sure we had details for our fallen comrades. Always had a color guard that went all over the state for our veterans, with a 21 gun salute. He sent the color guard to basketball and football games,” Cordova said.
In 1986, Baca ensured the National Guard and the Armory were available to help launch Taos Feeds Taos. “He always thought Taos was very special, especially with Taos Feeds Taos,” Cordova said. “He couldn’t believe a community was so united in helping each other.”
Cordova said Baca made it a point to come help during the annual Christmas drive that prepares food boxes for more than 1,000 families during the holiday.
Cordova said Baca helped a lot of people in Taos County join the guard, build skills and get jobs. “He went out of his way to help,” Cordova said.
Baca’s success in New Mexico attracted attending from Washington, D.C.
Baca had a cabin in Amalia in Northern Taos County and that’s where he hid out to escape national media attention after Pres. Bill Clinton appointed him in 1994 as the first Hispanic chief of the National Guard Bureau, according to Jaramillo.
Baca retired from the bureau in 1998 after serving more than 41 years with the national guard.
Baca was long a runner, training for marathons while he was in the national guard.
After he retired, he kept running and training, often with his son Brian. “That was our quality time together,” Brian Baca said. “We averaged seven minute miles for the marathons”
His dad also liked hunting, fishing and mountain climbing.
“Two years ago on his 80th birthday, he lead the family on a big hike in the Sandias,” Brain Baca said. “He was just so healthy and so in shape. We figured he would be in his late 80s before we saw signs of him slowing down.”
His dad was diagnosed with leukemia a year and a half ago.
Jaramillo was battling cancer at the same time.
They called to check up on each other.
“He told me he would battle it to the end,” Jaramillo said.
Honoring Bataan veterans
Lt. Gen. Baca “made it his mission to share the history of the heroics of the soldiers, better known as “The Battling Bastards of Bataan” and Jose Quintero’s Flag story. He told the story of this flag and its creator in every state and territory to include all seven continents; sharing the strength, character, and incredible patriotism that ultimately saved hundreds of lives,” according to a statement from the National Guard.
Jose Quintero was an Albuquerque resident and Bataan Death March survivor who, while in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, secretly created an American flag from blankets, sheets and other material. As the war was ending, it was the flag Quintero waved within the unmarked POW camp so an American aerial bomber would know prisoners were there.
Jaramillo met the retired general in Questa in 2005. Baca came to participate in Questa’s annual Memorial Day Veterans Healing Field of Honor, when the community places 1,000 American flags.
Baca brought Quintero’s flag and asked if he could speak.
“He attended 12 of our 15 events,” Jaramillo said. “Area veterans always wanted to hear from him, see him. He would make time to pose with people for photos. He wouldn’t leave the field until everyone talked to him.”
“He was one of the most charismatic people I’ve ever known,” Jaramillo said.
“He loved the United States and he loved New Mexico. He felt he was part of a long line of soldiers, part of a tradition. He said it was important not to take the country for granted.”
Lt. General Edward Baca is survived by six of his children, Brian and his wife, Penny, Brenda, and her husband, Glen, Karen, and her husband, Gert, Mark and his wife, Trisha, Michelle and David; along with 23 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. He is also survived by two brothers, Sam and Bob Baca.
Services will be on Monday,(Sept. 21), 10 a.m., at Prince of Peace Catholic Community, 12500 Carmel Ave. NE, in Albuquerque while following COVID-19 mandates. The service will be available via live stream at https://popabq.org/ Prince of Peace Live Mass link.