Former New Mexico Guard leader recalled as 'pioneer and visionary'
By PHILL CASAUS | The Santa Fe New Mexican | Published: September 19, 2020
(Tribune News Service) — Lt. Gen. Edward Baca knew how to employ a salute – and a handshake.
They were the simple but effective tools that made Baca a nonpareil leader during a lifetime of service to his state, both in and out of uniform, friends and members of the New Mexico National Guard said Friday.
"His ability to form friendships, to extend his arm and establish those friendships, were just instrumental in his success," said Gen. Ken Nava, who heads the New Mexico Guard.
Baca, a native Santa Fean who led the New Mexico National Guard for 11 years and later was named chief of the U.S. National Guard Bureau by President Bill Clinton, died Tuesday at his home in Albuquerque following a long battle with leukemia. He was 82.
Baca was credited with helping modernize the New Mexico Guard and later became the first Hispanic to head the National Guard Bureau. And even after he retired, Nava said Baca stayed in touch with the Guard and local veterans community, particularly those who had served in Bataan and Corregidor, where the New Mexico National Guard served bravely – and suffered greatly – during the early days of World War II.
"Once he got to know you, he got to know you," said Nava. "He wouldn't forget you."
Baca enlisted in the New Mexico National Guard in 1956 and volunteered for active duty during the Vietnam War. He was deployed there and returned to the Guard in 1966 after active duty service, according to a news release.
The role of the Guard was vital to Baca throughout his life. A gifted public speaker, he captivated audiences as he talked about the sacrifices of the New Mexico National Guard's 200th and 515th Coast Artillery units, which were overrrun by the Japanese in the Philippines and later endured the Bataan Death March, prison camps and "hell ships" during World War II. Nava said Baca sometimes brought with him to large public gatherings a flag made by a Bataan POW.
"It was motivating," Nava said.
Upon his appointment to adjutant general of the New Mexico Guard in 1983, Baca went about working to obtain modern equipment and systems for guardsmen and women to use. Gone were obsolete anti-aircraft guns; ushered in were modern tools like the Chaparral, Hawk and Patriot missile systems and F-16 fighters.
Nava said Baca was a master networker, simultaneously making funding cases to the Air Force, Army, National Guard Bureau and state legislators.
"He was a pioneer, a visionary," said National Guard Col. Craig Gilcrease.
Gilcrease knows better than most; he grew up on the same street as Baca's family in Santa Fe. He recalled a crisp, reliable family man whose charisma remained long after he stepped out of a uniform and into civilian clothes.
"When we were growing up, it wasn't about work or being [in] uniform, it was about family," said Gilcrease, recalling his days on Don Quixote Street. "He was always focused on what was going on at the time. Nothing overwhelming; he was just a regular dad: He'd watch his kids play sports, go to football games."
Gilcrease said one of his own favorite childhood memories was driving behind Baca as the general would prepare for marathons by running in the early mornings on N.M. 14 near the Penitentiary of New Mexico.
Gilcrease and Baca's kids would sip hot chocolate in a brown "Brady Bunch station wagon" as Baca would get in his run.
"He would just go," Gilcrease said. "He was so dedicated. He didn't let anything get in his way – rain, snow, it wouldn't matter."
Baca's funeral Mass will be celebrated at Prince of Peace Catholic Church in Albuquerque at 10 a.m. Monday, followed by a burial with military honors at Santa Fe National Cemetery at 3 p.m. The ceremony will include an F-16 flyover by a wing of the Arizona National Guard.
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