By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service WASHINGTON
-- Edward D. Baca's unrelenting grief over his father's sudden death bewildered his family. Their fervent, perpetual quest to detach the teen-ager from his bereavement failed, until a cousin sculptured a novel idea to soothe his pain.
On Nov. 19, 1956, a first cousin took the grieving teen-ager to the New Mexico National Guard armory. "Raise your right hand," the cousin told young Baca. "What am I doing?" the youngster asked? "You're joining the National Guard," his cousin responded. Baca smiles when he fondly remembers that day. "I'd just lost my father; he'd died suddenly," the general said. "We were very close, and I was going through some tough times -- really torn up.
I think my cousin thought he had to do something to get my mind off of losing my father." That's how Army National Guard Lt. Gen. Edward D. Baca launched his more than four-decade military career.
He enlisted in Battery C, 726th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion, New Mexico Army National Guard, and during the next six years served in various assignments, ranging from anti-aircraft gunner to supply sergeant. About six years later, his cousin presented an idea that catapulted Baca to the zenith of the Army and Air National Guard -- the presidential-appointed position of chief of the National Guard Bureau at the Pentagon. "You've gone as far as you're going to go as an enlisted man, you better attend officer's candidate school," his cousin suggested. Baca graduated July 20, 1962, three days before his 24th birthday.
Now, the three-star general oversees activities of the Army and Air National Guard in 50 states, Puerto Rico, Guam, Virgin Islands and District of Columbia. He's the channel of communications between the state governors, adjutants general, secretaries of the Army and Air Force and the secretary of defense. He also represents the interest of the Guard to Congress.
Baca has more than 370,000 Army Guardsmen and 110,000 Air Guardsmen under his command. He manages the National Guard Bureau with adroitness and savoir- faire, said Army Col. Mike Squire, the bureau's executive officer. "He's an open, energetic, eager people-person who is willing to listen to his subordinates and lets people do their jobs," Squire said. "He isn't afraid to make tough decisions, gives good guidance, clear directions and is well-understood." His years as an enlisted man "helps keep him focused on the backbone of the military services and the people who execute policies and actions," the colonel said. "He's very sensitive to the value of noncommissioned officers and enlisted members. "He cares about the soldiers and airmen under his command ... they know it and affectionately return those feelings," Squire said. Squire described Baca as a 58-year-old, 6-foot, 195-pound, solid- as-a-rock "physical fitness nut." "He maxes the Army's physical fitness test every time he takes it," Squire noted. "He's also runs the 26-mile marathon with a best time of 3 hours and 10 minutes. And he'll challenge anyone in push-ups, sit-ups and any kind of run. That's phenomenal for a man his age." An amiable, charismatic man, Baca has always possessed an eagerness to succeed, even as a youngster.
He tells how, as a first grader, he raked leaves all day to earn his first 25 cents, then gave it to his mom and dad. During vacations of his junior high school years, he delivered soft drinks from 5 a.m. until past sundown throughout northern New Mexico.
He earned $35 per week, which was big bucks for a teen-ager in those days, and used it to help pay tuition at St. Michael's High School in Santa Fe. Baca spent high school summer vacation laboring in the sweltering New Mexico sun on construction crews, just as his grandfather did. The tiring, sweaty, travails of manual labor prompted him to pursue a different livelihood. "That's when I decided I wanted a good education rather than follow in my grandfather's footsteps," said Baca.
His father, Enesto, a World War II and Korean War veteran, was a letter carrier. Baca is especially proud of his mother's accomplishments. "My mother was the first in the family to receive a high school diploma," he said. "She graduated from Loretto Academy.
In those days, graduating from Loretto was probably equivalent to getting a master's degree. "Shortly after graduating, she got into local politics while raising a family of six," Baca said. Baca said his mother didn't fit the housewife stereotype of the Hispanic woman. "She was a career woman with political involvement," he noted.
Noting that he comes from a long line of military men, Baca said his dad's side of the family has been traced back to the Conquistadors in Mexico. "My brother did a genealogy study and discovered my ancestors came from Mayorca, Spain," he said. "My 11th great grandfather immigrated to Mexico City in the 1500s and had two sons.
One of them, my 10th great grandfather, went to Santa Fe in 1600 as a captain ... to establish the capital there." The New Mexico National Guard claims to evolve from the first militia in the United States going back to those days.
Around that time, the Spanish established the Vecions, or neighbors, Baca noted. "So I think my 11th great grandfather may have had something to do with establishing the first militia in the United States," he said. "Both of his sons were also captains in Onate's army.
Two of my great grandfathers fought in the Civil War." Of his five siblings, four brothers and one sister, only one served in the armed forces, his oldest brother. Baca and his wife, the former Rita Hennigan of Munster, Texas, have seven children, four of whom served in the military -- two in the Army and two Air Force. His son, Brian, 35, is a major in the New Mexico National Guard. Mark, 28, is a sergeant in the New Mexico National Guard. Baca said he didn't learn to speak English until the first grade. "My grandparents lived with us, so we spoke Spanish," he said. "I was taught English by the Christian Brothers at St. Michael's.
Some people think if a person doesn't speak English, they're of less intelligence than someone who does," the general said. "That's not accurate," he noted. "It's been proven over and over again by soldiers, airmen, Marines, sailors and Coast Guardsmen that there is no differences in any ethnic group or races.
Hispanics and other minorities have proven they're just as good as service members as anybody else. That's a stereotype that needs to be completely eradicated. "In the military, particularly in times of war, everybody has the same color -- you become brothers," Baca said. "The military has done a tremendous amount to foster integration, equal opportunity and mutual respect and love between the races and people of different backgrounds.
" Having ethnic observances like Hispanic Heritage Month helps educate
people about Hispanics, African Americans and other ethnic and racial groups'
contributions to the nation, he said. "But I look forward to he day when
ethnic observances are not necessary -- the day when it won't make any
difference," Baca said.
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