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Family Wins Fight With Coronavirus Bureaucracy To Bury An American War Hero

Father Phillip James Velasquez Sr. before they took the casket from the chopper hearse. Courtesy of the Velasquez family.

At noon on Thursday, the Velasquez family followed Joseph’s casket out of French funeral home in Albuquerque, New Mexico on its way to meet the escort. Draped in the American flag and on the side of the volunteer biker’s chopper hearse, he’s a hard man to miss even aside from the police honor guard — and before the long line of motorcyclists waiting on the route to fall in behind the family and see their brother to rest.

The National Guard folds the Flag to present to Darlene Velasquez. Courtesy of the Velasquez family.

The trek from their hometown to Santa Fe National Cemetery is 60 miles. Short, when compared with the struggle to let Master Sgt. Joseph Velasquez’s family finally lay him to rest.

Joseph and his slightly older brother, Phillip, were born in Germany 40 years ago, sons of Phillip Sr., a 20-year Marine who served three tours in Vietnam, and Wilma Maria, his German wife. Raised in Albuquerque on the San Felipe Pueblo reservation, the brothers played football at the Santa Fe Indian School together, followed their father into 20 years of military service together, and when their stations allowed, raised their families together.

Joseph, Phillip and their father Phillip James Velasquez Sr. when they played at Santa Fe Indian School. Photo courtesy of Phillip Velasquez.Velasquez.

On the night of May 22, Joseph was killed by a hit-and-run driver while he walked home on a scenic country road north of Ft. Benning, where he oversaw courses for the Military Adviser Training Program.

That night, the widowing of his wife, Darlene, and the taking of his six children’s father marked just the beginning of a nearly six-week nightmare as a family that had served 60 years and a combined 11 combat tours for their country struggle against government coronavirus confusion and paranoia, and unsympathetic bureaucracy, to lay their son, brother, husband, father, and grandfather to rest with the honors he earned, deserved, and was promised by his country.

Phillip took the lead, for weeks trying in vain to get in touch with political leaders and news stations before seeing the large, public services for George Floyd, attended by his own unresponsive congresswoman, Rep. Deb Haaland. He took to Facebook on the evening of June 10, frustrated and reaching out to friends and fellow soldiers, his message spreading cross-country over the following week through friends of friends of friends.

Phillip Velasquez at the closing prayer. Courtesy of the Velasquez family.

The rules were draconian. Even while Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham had opened restaurants to 50 percent indoor dining across the state, Santa Fe National Cemetery Director Cindy M. Van Bibber, Phillip says, remained unmoved and aggressive in her defense of protocol, which she said called for six-person funeral maximum. Joseph’s widow, children, and grandchild had shared a home with his parents for weeks, but to no avail.

The ask from Phillip was simple: I will watch from the parking lot with my wife and our four children if we must, but please let my sister-in-law, her family, and my parents bury my brother. And one week after the first coverage at The Federalist and dozens of phone calls and emails up and down the state, nothing had changed.

Every branch of New Mexico’s government is controlled by Democrats, but on June 24, after being alerted by a state activist, Republican state House Minority Leader James Townsend sent a letter to the governor demanding to know why the family had told The Federalist “in multiple articles” that her office had been unresponsive.

“I am writing to request your personal involvement in this matter as I cannot believe you would ever refuse this hero’s request to be buried alongside his fellow brothers in arms,” the letter reads in part. “I understand the COVID-19 pandemic has changed how we conduct our daily lives… However, it seems to me this request by Master Sgt. Velasquez’s family is a worthy exception…”

“Victor Wrasse, the chief legislative liaison, called and said that he had received the letter,” Townsend said in a call later the afternoon of June 26, “and that he believed that they were going to be able to provide a process for that memorial service funeral to proceed, so I thank him for that.”

“We kept waiting for somebody to be real honest — to take the ball and run with it — embarrassed as I watched that a soldier who had done so much for us, we couldn’t help his family. I think he would have done that for us. So that’s the reason for the letter, and I’m happy that the governor is going to bend her rules just a little bit to allow that to occur.”

Later that same day, Phillip texted me good news: Carmela Quintana, a representative for Sen. Tom Udall, had reached out earlier that week. In all the chaos and confusion of nationwide lockdowns, he says she told him essential issues like theirs had been lost.

A combat veteran herself, when coverage came across her desk, she immediately called. “She is a veteran,” Phillip told me, “and as soon as she got on the phone with me I knew she was speaking my language. She was the first one, man, the first one.” And she had made certain Joseph was laid to rest with the honors he and his family had earned.

It wasn’t the first time Phillip had worked to bury a man he called his brother under intense pressure — just the first time at home in America. “When I was in Afghanistan and one of my brothers died, all operations minus the major security operations ceased,” he recalled in earlier Federalist coverage. “We had Australians, we had French, we had U.K., we German, we had American troops lined up on the tarmac. And I was the short guy of the pallbearer groups so I was in the back, but bag pipes played and there was a single aircraft C-130 that flew my brother home.”

The flag that was presented to mother Wilma Maria Velasquez. Courtesy of the Velasquez family.

The whole family, he learned, would be permitted to attend the funeral of his brother. Joseph would get a full honor guard — and the 21-gun salute Phillip knew was necessary. The pipes would play “Amazing Grace.”

In the dry, clear sun of early Thursday afternoon, dozens and dozens of riders from the Combat Vets Club, American Legion Riders, Patriot Guard, Brothers Allegiance, and others followed the 30-motorcycle Albuquerque police officers and New Mexico State Troopers who escorted the family down the highway for Joseph’s Last Ride.

“Oh man, it was freaking crazy,” Phillip said the morning after. “Albuquerque is pretty far, New Mexico is pretty flat. I didn’t see a car for miles of just open space. And as were driving by our pueblo, because I-25 runs right past the reservation, all my relatives who were busy doing stuff here on the reservation, they went out to the overpass. That kind of hit me pretty hard. As we were driving through they had balloons and signs, and then the tribe officials, who are police for the reservation, were parked up there with their trucks and lights and sirens going off.”

Family greets the convoy as they pass. Courtesy of the Velasquez family.

“Because I was part of the procession I didn’t really see how long it was,” Phillip said, until he saw video Carmela took for them as they pulled into the cemetery. “It was pretty d-mn long!”

Growing up, the brothers had been close friends and played football with twin brothers Calvin and Curtis Lucero. Now a New Mexico State Trooper and Special Investigations Unit officer, respectively, they remained close with the family, serving as pallbearers for Joseph’s casket.

They were joined in their duty by soldiers from back in the day when Joseph was a squad leader. “We were drinking the day before,” Phillip says, “and they’re telling me stories. This was how big of an impact he had on people 15 years ago — 15 freaking years!”

“Next thing I know I’m hearing guns, gunshot, and here comes the burial detail,” Phillip recalls. “They folded up the flag, presented it to Darlene, and then the guy who presented the flag to Darlene … he’s a major, but he and my brother were roommates at Santa Fe Indian School back in 1993. It’s a boarding school and they were roommates, and so he’s talking me and he says, ‘You don’t remember me, do you?’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t remember the mask,’ and he pulled it down. ‘Oh wow! Yeah! Frigging 25 years ago!’ So my brother’s old roommate, he’s the one that presented the flag to my parents.”

Phillip James Velasquez Sr, Phillip, and Calvin Lucero comfort Wilma Velasquez before she is presented with the flag. Courtesy of the Velasquez family.

Directives still kept the family from the graveside while workers were there, but the man overseeing operations sympathized and brought them to the road so they could stand witness as they lowered Joseph for the last time. When they were done, the Velasquez family ran their hands through the dirt.

Maj. Isaac Tenorio presents the flag. He was Master Sgt. Joseph Velasquez’s roommate when they attended Santa Fe Indian Boarding School. Courtesy of the Velasquez family.

“And it was good,” Phillip tells me. And a relief.

“I was glad that it’s kind of over, you know what I mean? No more phone calls.”

After the funeral, Phillip dropped his family off. The San Felipe Pueblo, where his parents live, had been hit hard by Covid-19, as had the nearby Zia Pueblo, and roadblocks were set up for the Fourth of July weekend. The family had traditions, and having finally seen him laid to rest, Phillip joined his parents to send his brother’s spirit to peace.

It had been a long trip.

“I got a phone call from Congressman [Ben Ray] Lujan the day before, in the evening, probably about 9, 10 o’clock my time,” he told me, sounding at ease in between ancient ceremonies. “He said, ‘Hey, I can’t get out on a flight in the morning — I’m here in DC — but I want to visit when you guys get back to Albuquerque.'”

“You know, he’s not my congressman, he’s not part of our district, but he said, ‘I would like to come by the house, give my condolences,'” Phillip shared, touched by the call. “I never heard anything from my congresswoman, [Deb] Haaland, except for that one time when she called, distracted, and then tried to send her freaking campaign emails to me and Darlene.”

“She supported citizens from other states and ignored her own district.”

Rep. Xochitl Torres Small, who represents southern New Mexico, had been the first to respond to The Federalist weeks prior, saying her office was working with others to get this done. And when Carmela first spoke to Phillip, she was quick to point to Sen. Martin Heinrich’s office’s help, though by all appearances and stories, including from the funeral home director, Carmela led the charge on the ground.

Blue Star Mothers show their support. Courtesy of the Velasquez family.

“While nothing can heal the pain of their loss, I am grateful that my office could be of assistance as the Velasquez family has sought to honor their son, Master Sgt. Joseph Velasquez,” Udall told The Federalist, allowing for the family’s permission to break his usual silence on constituent services. “The pandemic has made this difficult time even more challenging for the Velasquez family, but I am relieved that they were able to give Joseph the ceremony that he so thoroughly deserves. I know I speak for all New Mexicans when I offer my heartfelt condolences to the Velasquez family and my deepest gratitude for Joseph’s service and dedication to this nation. His legacy will live on in the values that he stood for.”

“If there was anybody that I would want to recognize, it would be Carmela from Sen. Udall’s office,” Phillip told me. “She was very passionate about helping me with this.”

And she spoke his way, he laughs: The funeral director characterized the phone call to him as “Pull your head out of your -ss and make this sh-t happen. This is happening!”

“She really advocated and fought for us to make that whole funeral arrangement actually happen. We had some people calling concerned, but she was really put a lot of her passion and effort into it. If it weren’t for her…”

For days leading up to the funeral, Phillip had difficulty sleeping. Thursday night, after finally laying Joseph down, he reckons he clocked two and half hours — but this time instead of staring at the ceiling, he’d been kept up by a long night of his family singing and dancing.

“When it’s all over I’m going to go to a hotel, get a six pack of beer, probably a 40-ounce, sit there and watch some TV and just veg out and then crash and sleep for 18 hours,” he tells me.

His brother is laid to rest. His brother’s family can return home to Georgia.

“It went almost freaking flawless.”

The honor guard salute. Courtesy of the Velasquez family.