War zone training helped National Guard leader address Northern New Mexico wildfire response
The Santa Fe New Mexican December 11, 2022
SANTA FE, N.M. (Tribune News Service) — While reflecting on his time in uniform, both as a National Guard member and state police officer, Brig. Gen. Miguel Aguilar gazes out of a spacious office window at the sprawling mountains that appear serene in the distance.
The tranquil setting sharply contrasts with the war zones in which he spent time earlier in his career; the places he described as critical to forging the leadership skills he applies as head of the New Mexico National Guard.
Although his role as the National Guard’s adjutant general keeps him busy, Aguilar seems to be enjoying a holiday respite after a hectic period with nonstop demands from unit deployments, the coronavirus pandemic, the largest wildfire in the state’s history and recent post-fire flooding in communities that abut the immense burn scar.
Aguilar, 52, became interim adjutant general at the beginning of the year and then took the helm officially in May when Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham appointed him to the post.
He stepped into the National Guard’s top statewide spot shortly after two planned burns went awry and merged into the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire that raged for months, scorching 341,000 acres and destroying at least 500 homes.
He credits the Guard’s personnel for being stalwart in the transition amid a regional emergency.
“Certainly we had a change in leadership in the middle of all that, but there’s almost 3,000 Army, about a thousand Air Guardsmen, that didn’t change,” Aguilar said.
“The accomplishments of the last year and the years prior to that are really them. They’re the ones who do the work.”
Fire and floods
Although Guard teams weren’t involved in firefighting, they aided in delivering food, water and other essentials to shelters or wherever displaced residents were housed, Aguilar said.
The state Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management ran an operation center for wildfires on the National Guard base, he added.
The National Guard also had two tankers carry water wherever it was needed, including to supply firefighters so they didn’t have to draw water from streams while they were battling the blaze, Aguilar said.
Some water was dispensed to Las Vegas, N.M., when it was facing a severe shortage, he said, referring to ashy runoff and debris contaminating the Gallinas River, the city’s main source of drinking water.
In late June, an early monsoon helped extinguish the mammoth blaze, but at the same time, stormwater gushed down blackened hillsides, where trees and vegetation had been burned away, leaving nothing to slow the torrential runoff.
Properties near streams and slopes faced heightened risks of flooding.
“Especially in New Mexico ... a monsoon state, when you see fire, you must think flood,” Aguilar said. “Because that comes next.”
The teams led the effort to fill almost 400,000 sandbags to help vulnerable residents fortify their homes against flooding, he said.
The National Guard also delivered about 100 freezers to people who lost their appliances in the fire, so they would have a way to store food, he said. The assistance was especially needed for the elderly who had no way to pick up the freezers.
During the fire, teams also helped with evacuation notifications and relieved state police at checkpoints so the officers could patrol communities and safeguard the vacated homes against thieves, Aguilar said.
“What guided us through all of it was we needed to transform ourselves to do whatever we have to do to help our citizens,” he said.
In an email, Lujan Grisham praised the National Guard’s work under Aguilar’s leadership during various crises, including the wildfires.
“I have no doubt that many lives were saved as a direct result of the National Guard’s efforts during this summer’s wildfires,” the governor wrote. “ National Guard members included those whose own communities were under threat, whose families were fleeing the flames, and still they rose to the occasion and tirelessly served their fellow New Mexicans.”
Shaping a leader
Aguilar, who grew up in the small southeast New Mexico town of Dexter, developed an interest in serving his country at a young age.
In 1990, he enrolled at New Mexico Military Institute, a junior college in Roswell, through an ROTC program.
He recalls wanting to enlist in the National Guard so he could take part in Operation Desert Storm, but he got in shortly after the conflict ended in March 1991.
Aguilar would have his chance later to deploy to the Mideast.
In 1998, he joined New Mexico State Police and rose to the rank of major — the third highest grade — before retiring in 2018.
That same year, Maj. Gen. Ken Nava, the former National Guard head, offered him a job as deputy adjutant general, and Aguilar accepted.
Nava left the National Guard at the end of 2021. In January, Aguilar took over as interim adjutant general and then four months later became the official leader.
Earlier in his career, Aguilar deployed to Afghanistan as an embedded trainer in 2005. There, as a major, he worked with advisers in Army Special Forces to instruct members of the Afghan army.
In 2012, Aguilar commanded the 1-200 Infantry Battalion Forward when it went to the Sinai region for nine months as part of a multinational force. In all, about 425 soldiers were sent, comprising one New Mexico’s largest National Guard deployments since World War II, Aguilar said.
The main mission was to ensure Israel and Egypt were upholding the Camp David Accords, an operation that dates to when the treaty was signed in 1978. It included running checkpoints along the border, Aguilar said.
He said his stint as a major in Afghanistan shaped his leadership philosophy by exposing him to how elite commanders operated in a hostile environment. It not only prepared him to oversee the large deployment to the Sinai seven years later but enabled him to ascend the ranks in the state police.
“It was an inflection point in my career,” Aguilar said. “I felt much more comfortable as a leader coming back from that deployment.”
Assisting with pandemic
In New Mexico, one of the first statewide emergencies he grappled with as a high-ranking leader was the coronavirus raging through New Mexico.
The National Guard assisted with testing and later vaccinations; delivered personal protective equipment, food, water and other supplies; provided warehousing; and coordinated emergency actions.
In the days before home testing, the National Guard often flew samples to out-of-state laboratories for testing, Aguilar said. And it provided substitute teachers so classrooms could keep going if teachers were out sick or quit their jobs because they were anxious about being exposed to coronavirus.
Some parents asked why the National Guard was coming into schools, he said. It’s an attitude that underscored the need for the National Guard to change the perception that its members are outsiders, he added.
“We’re not coming into the community — we are the community,” Aguilar said.
One of his goals is to ensure members are as healthy and fit as possible, both physically and mentally, by installing more exercise equipment and facilities at installations. Although most members are there only twice a month, it will reinforce good exercise habits for the other 28 days of the month, he said.
Another goal is to improve recruitment, a problem experienced across the military, Aguilar said.
Retention is as strong as it has ever been, he said, attributing that to the rewards that National Guard members feel when they help people during crises. Still, he would like to see more people stay long-term in the National Guard because he believes it makes them better in their other roles, whether it’s a parent, employee, business owner or community leader.
“The Guard set a lot of the foundation in my education and my experience to be successful,” Aguilar said. “And I believe that story isn’t unique for me.”
(c)2022 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.)
Visit The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.) at www.santafenewmexican.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.