Veterans honoring veterans
FORT BLISS — From the Liberty Expressway, drivers, moving at 60 mph, can see the Fort Bliss Cemetery. The image arrives with a startling flash of white, a blurry collection of marble headstones ranked in rows, a sort of eternal formation of deceased military veterans. And then, it’s gone.
But once one drives through the stone gates, parks and stands on the grounds, the image remains – no flash, no blur – a timeless reflection in regal precision. The headstones, etched with a service member’s name, rank, date of birth and death, are positioned at uniform distance and height. Red rock evenly blankets the ground. Even the headstone shadows, like silhouetted salutes, are identical.
For a visitor, the Fort Bliss Cemetery is a place for remembrance and reflection. However, for the men and women who maintain the grounds, especially those who have served in the military, like Eduardo Rocha and Greg Juarez, it is a place of honor.
Born in the same year, 1960, Rocha and Juarez were two men who took very different military and personal paths. Rocha, an El Paso native, dropped out of high school in 1978 with the hopes of joining his older brother, a Navy seaman, in Vietnam. Juarez, on the other hand, was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, graduated high school, attended four semesters at the University of Nebraska, and enlisted in the Army in 1985.
Rocha, who enlisted as an aviation repairman, was sent to boot camp in San Diego, California, and job training in Tennessee. A year after enlisting, Rocha was sent overseas, traveling to China, Japan, Thailand, Singapore and Kenya.
“Would you believe that? All that travel, and no trip to Vietnam,” said Rocha, laughing at the irony.
“However, I did get to travel, and in the end that is what gave me the most interesting experiences.”
Unfortunately, many of the interesting experiences involved the darker side of war, a reality Rocha admits was too hard to deal with anymore.
“I left after four years of service,” said Rocha, staring at the surrounding headstones. “Just couldn’t sign another contract; saw too much. It was not all bad; I just needed to take a different path at that time in my life.”
The path for Rocha involved years of traveling and working, a course with little stability and convoluted directions. It was not until 2009 when Rocha would apply to work at the Fort Bliss Cemetery.
“All my life, I looked for jobs that would bring money, cars, anything having to do with material,” said Rocha, rolling his eyes at his past ideology, “and it was not until I began work here that I truly understood the importance of giving back to others.”
In 2009, it would be another two years before Rocha would meet fellow service member Juarez, a man had walked a very different path to the cemetery. Their only military similarity would be in their jobs. Juarez enlisted in the air defense artillery, attended basic combat training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, and advanced individual training at Fort Bliss.
Over a military career that spanned 20 years, Juarez would travel to Germany, Texas, Korea and California. He witnessed the effects of the Cold War and trained Soldiers for Operation Enduring Freedom.
“The military was amazing to me, and I couldn’t be prouder to be a veteran,” said Juarez. “Sure, there were moments when it was challenging, but it was all worth it.”
The true challenges, admits Juarez, were waiting for him after his military career. The veteran worked as a bilingual elementary school teacher in districts with “little to no money.”
“The job took a lot more than patience; it truly forced me to evolve and learn a lot about myself,” said Juarez, wiping his brow. “However, the military engrained a great detail of work ethic, discipline and maturity that helped in my teachings.”
In 2011, Juarez left the classroom for the cemetery, a transition that may seem odd but, as he explained, made sense at the time.
“You can take the man out of the Army, but can’t take the Army out of the man,” said Rocha with a light chuckle. “And I wanted to honor those who I so proudly worked next to for over two decades.”
From the very first week, Juarez took on the responsibilities that were expected of all the grounds crew: set and realign headstones, landscape grounds, dig graves. The grounds crew is a family, according to Rocha, and Juarez fit in “perfectly.”
“What I might be good at, someone else might not, so we combine our skills to make the best attempt at perfection,” said Rocha, pointing at the headstones. “Being military veterans, we understand the importance of getting it done right and focusing the team on the same goal: honoring the veterans.”
Juarez echoed the sentiment by stating, “People do not come here because they are happy. But it is our duty to see they leave with a sense their loved one rests in a dignified place.”
And dignified it is. The 80-acre cemetery is a sprawling landscape of marble head stones – a true beacon of reflection and a monument to veteran’s honor, thanks in large part to the efforts of those who work the grounds.