The Fight for Freedom

Marlena Hartz and Sharna Johnson: Staff writers

Today, America honors its veterans. And so do we. These are the stories of High Plains residents who — long ago, not so long ago, and just months ago — donned uniforms, braved the battlefield, and came home.

Ralph Finkner
Occupation: Finkner spent 21 years working for the New Mexico State University Agriculture Department after he left the military and received his Ph.D.
Age: 80
Branch: Navy
Dates of service: 1945-1946

What major issues do veterans face currently or what concerns do they have? “Our age and our health. I am not as sprite as I used to be.”

In his words: As the youngest in his family, Ralph Finkner was the last of his three brothers to enter combat. He thought of himself as a simple farm boy when he was drafted. The fate of the farm, and his parents at home, weighed heavy on his mind. His experience, however, was eye-opening.

“It was a great experience for a farm boy that never saw a lake he couldn’t throw a rock across to be near the ocean,” Finkner said. It seemed everyone in 1945 just yearned for the war to be over, Finkner said. When news of the Japanese surrender reached sea crews, they weren’t sure how to react, Finkner said.

“I let out a little yip,” Finkner said.

Dan Broyles
Occupation: Retired
Age: 65
Branch: Air Force
Dates of service: 1963-1970

What major issues do veterans face currently or what concerns do they have? “I have full medical through disability but I see what my friends go through. The VA is under powered. I feel if you served in combat and were wounded, all of your medical should be taken care of.”

In his words: Elvis, Little Richard and old rock ‘n’ roll were the music of the day for Broyles. While peg-leg pants and skinny ties were coming into fashion, he and his buddies preferred jeans, boots and T-shirts.

Riding motorcycles before they were part of pop culture, he remembers being considered a “wild child” and a little bit rebellious.

America had begun the space program and Vietnam was on the horizon. He enlisted because “I wanted to make my family proud of me.” His father had been shot down in Korea and rescued, so Broyles, to honor his father, worked to become a rescuer.

He has one souvenir that he kept from his service, a lighter. After rescuing a downed pilot, the man gave it to him as a gift; it was in his pocket when his chopper was shot down on another rescue mission.

“Five months after I was shot down I was told my jump partner had died when we went down. His wife came to see me. I didn’t know until then. The military had never told me.” he said.

John “Johnny” Melvin Washington
Occupation: Retired after 33 Years with the Coors Co.
Age: 71
Branch: Air Force
Dates of service: June 1, 1951 to Oct. 16, 1956

What major issues do veterans face currently; what concerns do they have? “They get wounded and killed and they’re treated liked dogs. People are getting older and the costs are going up. They keep trying to close more VA hospitals — the VA hospitals can’t be closed, we are fighting hard to keep them. They have got to have somewhere to go — they should be building more than closing them.”

In his day: Juke boxes played rock music, Kay Star was at the top of the charts and teens were wearing “slim-trim,” clean cut fashions during the time Washington entered the service.

He dreamed of playing baseball and wanted more freedom for himself. A young black man growing up in a small Virginia town, Washington said segregation was a concern among his peer group. He was required to ride in the back of buses and eat in the kitchens of restaurants. “Once we got in the service it was not nearly the way it was on the outside.”

Service changed his life. “The Air Force taught me how to get along. You’re all in it together. I met so many friends from all over the world. You learn to communicate with others and get along with others. Those were the things that have stuck with me all my life.”

Alejandro Casarez
Occupation: Portales bio-energy plant employee
Age: 22
Branch: Marine Corps
Dates of service: 2001-2005
Conflict: Iraq

What major issues do veterans face currently or what concerns do they have? Casarez said adjusting to life as a civilian and dealing with wartime memories is the biggest concern for marines returning from Iraq.

In his words: Alejandro Casarez brought home two reminders of the time he spent in Iraq: An Iraqi helmet and a flag. The flag was a gift. A young Iraqi boy handed it to him while he was on duty, and simply said, “U.S. number one.” Casarez is more reticent to speak of other memories of the war.

“I don’t like to talk about them,” he said. He left the Marine Corps only four months ago and adjusting to life as a civilian has been difficult.

“It’s completely different. I miss (being a Marine),” Casarez said, who joined the military after he graduated from high school. Being a Marine was a positive experience for the Texas native. The friendships he developed from people from all over the country, he said, made his service worthwhile.

As a Marine, Casarez had just one goal: “To make sure everyone came home safely,” he said.

Ronnie “Turtle” Wells
Occupation: Trucking Supervisor, K Barnett and Sons
Age: 55
Branch: Navy
Dates of service: December 1969 to December 1989
Engagements: Vietnam, Cold War, Iran Hostage Crisis

What major issues do veterans face currently; what concerns do they have? “Cuts in benefits — we were promised free medical for the rest of our lives.”

In his words: A Clovis teen entering the service during Vietnam, Wells remembers that The Turtles and Herman and the Hermits were the music of the day. “Safari Suits” were the fashion of the time. The things on the minds of local youth were going college, escaping Clovis and Vietnam.

Wells served a full military career with the Navy and said he saw nearly every country in the world. After 13 deployments lasting six to eight months each, Wells logged 6,000 hours in the air.

Involved in several “hot spots” and conflicts, many of his activities during his service are still classified to this day.

Wells said “the worst thing about my service was the 13 plus years I spent away from my family.” His oldest son was 6 months old when he met him for the first time, his second son 7 months old when they met.

Luke Wert
Age: 22
Occupation: Cannon Air Force Base Security Forces Squadron Member (installation patrolman)
Branch: Air Force
Dates of service: 2002 to present
Conflict: Afghanistan

What major issues do veterans face currently or what concerns do they have? No comment.

In his words: Forever embedded in Luke Wert’s heart is the plight of Afghanistan’s children. The senior airmen spent five and a half months in the war-torn country. Many of the children he encountered were malnourished and uneducated.

“Seeing the way the children lived over there — the way they were treated — that was tough to get used to,” Wert said.

The poorest Afghanis built haphazard homes from slabs of wood and tin, Wert said. Some children Wert encountered were hostile, throwing rocks at military personnel and shouting offensive words in English. “The little bit of English they knew was not pleasant,” Wert said.

However, the deployment offered him invaluable hands-on experience, he said.

“A lot of things in the military you are trained for, but never get the chance to exercise. I was able to exercise almost everything I learned in training and more when I was in Afghanistan. It’s not everyday you get to put into practice what you learn,” Wert said.