Veterans Day

La Cordillera veteran remembers brothers who served with him in Korea

'Los hermanos soldados'

By John Miller
jmiller@taosnews.com
Posted 11/10/19

"Los hermanos, Manuel, Mario, Eduardo and Santiago Barela, served their country during the time of war and peace," begins a handwritten letter Mario Barela, 85, penned last month as he looked back on his time serving in the Korean War with his brothers.

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Veterans Day

La Cordillera veteran remembers brothers who served with him in Korea

'Los hermanos soldados'

Posted

"Los hermanos, Manuel, Mario, Eduardo and Santiago Barela, served their country during the time of war and peace," begins a handwritten letter Mario Barela, 85, penned last month as he looked back on his time serving in the Korean War with his brothers.

That was nearly 70 years ago, a long time to look back and remember, but Barela, of La Cordillera near Ranchos de Taos, said he wrote down what he could so that his family would not forget.

"One of the things that my mother did was she saved our pictures, and when she passed away they were given to me," Barela said, adding that uncles on both sides of his family served in World War II. His father-in-law served in World War I. "We come from a military background. Our family has always served."

Five years ago, Barela was in his attic sifting through discarded family items when he came across the photos his mother had proudly framed. Looking at the fading black-and-white photos of himself and his brothers dressed in their war uniforms, their faces much younger and a youthful energy in their eyes, helped Barela cut through the fog that's formed over the years.

He said his oldest brother, Manuel, was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1952, when he was in his early 20s. Barela enlisted as soon as he graduated from Taos High School, followed by his younger brothers, Eduardo and Santiago.

Barela was driven to serve in part by a desire to follow in the footsteps of his oldest brother, but the GI Bill was also an attractive option to the Barela brothers, as it was to the thousands of other New Mexicans who enlisted in the war.

Barela said the military felt like the only option for himself and other young men from Taos County, who were unsure about the direction their lives would take after graduation.

"I saw no opportunity anywhere else," he said.

Barela received basic training in the infantry at Fort Sill in Oklahoma before he was instructed to serve with a 105 Howitzer unit, a team that oversaw the maintenance and operation of an artillery cannon.

He continued his training at Fort Lewis in Washington state, where he was briefly reunited with his oldest brother, who was honing his skills as an Army cook - with a specialty as a bread baker.

"I thought his food was good," Barela said and laughed, adding, "but I can't speak for everyone else."

Deploying to Korea was an exciting time, Barela said, the sort of big adventure boys from New Mexico- who hadn't been farther north than Colorado, or farther south than Albuquerque - dream about. He said his uncles never spoke about the brutal realities of World War II, so he said he wasn't fearful about deploying.

"The whole company was experiencing the same thing," Barela recalled, adding that he was separated from his brothers once he arrived but remained with other men from New Mexico. "The others were just like we were. Many were drafted and some were volunteers as well. They were also experiencing being out of their towns for the first time, just graduating from high school and so on."

By then, it had been two years since the North Korean army - supported by the Soviet Union and China - had crossed the 38th parallel into South Korea, prompting a conflict that would claim the lives of approximately 3 million people, the majority of whom were Korean civilians.

While many smaller skirmishes erupted at the dividing line between the north and the south late in the war, Barela never saw combat during his deployment.

"They moved us fast," he said, "you'd set up your tent, and then before you knew it, you were moved somewhere else."

On June 27, 1953, the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed, and Barela and his brothers went home.

"I didn't want to make the military my career," Barela said. "I just felt that I wanted to serve my time and do it well. So what happened there is the benefit of the GI Bill became really important for me, as well as for my brothers."

Back in New Mexico, Barela and his older brother enrolled at Highlands University. Barela graduated with a teaching degree and became an administrator with Taos Municipal Schools. His brother went into social work.

A few years later, Barela met his wife and they started a family.

Tragedy struck in 1964, when Barela's younger brother, Eduardo, died in a car accident.

Barela worked for the school district in Taos for 23 years before retiring in 1990. A year later his mother died, followed by his father in 1995.

While he and his brothers found separate paths (Santiago moved to Albuquerque, where he still lives), Barela said it's become more important to him over the years to look back and remember a time when their lives were closely connected by their service, a bond he believes most veterans in New Mexico share.

And he knows old age is taking taking a greater toll on himself and his brothers. A month and a half ago, he said, Manuel fell and broke his hip. Looking at the photos his mother stored away reminded him to pause and remember their time together.

"I've had them for quite some time," he said, as he tucked the photos back into a folder where he keeps them safe, "but I felt that maybe this would be a reminder to the family that we never forgot each other."

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