FARMINGTON — During the hustle and bustle of daily life, it's difficult for many of us to remember we are in the company of silent and unsung heroes: the men and women who have selflessly sacrificed large portions of their lives and often their mental and physical health by serving in the U.S. military to keep our nation safe.

Today, on Veteran's Day, is our chance to do so.

Bernie Meeks, a longtime Farmington resident, recently shared his story of military service, and the scars that came along with it.

The soft-spoken Vietnam veteran was raised in Cuba and drafted into the Army in 1969, shortly after graduating from high school. After attending basic training at Fort Ord in California, he attended infantry school for nine weeks, followed by 12 weeks of operations and intelligence school at Fort Benning, Ga. He then went on to forward observer training, where he learned about artillery, gunships and airstrikes.

In 1970, Meeks was sent to Vietnam, attending Ranger school there, and was assigned to E Company in the 35th Infantry Division, working reconnaissance in the central highlands of Vietnam, in the vicinity of Pleiku and An Khe.

Meeks' reconnaissance platoon consisted of 12 soldiers, with Meeks serving as the platoon's forward observer, which meant he had to be aware of the position and movement of his own troops as well as ascertain the enemy's location and movements.

"We basically had to seek out the enemy while making sure we were undetected, then call in gunships, artillery or line troops," Meeks said.


In 1971, Meeks was working out of an Army base in Chu Lai, Vietnam, serving as platoon leader.

"The platoon leader was usually a captain or major, but because no one of that rank was available, I was assigned to be platoon leader as well as forward observer for the platoon."

On April 4, Meeks' platoon walked into an enemy ambush.

"When doing reconnaissance, the first soldier in line acts as point man, watching the ground for booby traps, such as mines. The second in line is known as the slack man, watching over the point man's shoulder for the enemy," Meeks explained. "I was walking slack, and I saw movement. I realized we were in an ambush situation."

The platoon was immediately engaged in a full firefight with a number of enemy soldiers. Meeks was lying on the ground next to the point man when the enemy threw a fragmentation grenade, hitting Meeks in the head with shrapnel and knocking him unconscious.

"The point man took the brunt of the grenade, and it killed him," he said.

Meeks was evacuated to Chu Lai where he underwent surgery to remove the shrapnel. He had suffered a massive concussion and damage to his right eye. Fortunately, the shrapnel did not enter his brain, though Meeks still has some pieces of shrapnel lodged in his forehead.

After several months, Meeks returned home to New Mexico and after two years, was released from his military obligation.

Meeks worked for a few years in the oil industry, then for 25 years in the mining industry, traveling the world extensively doing sales and management work.

Meeks has been married to his wife, Michelle, for 17 years and has two grown daughters from a previous marriage. Retired for the past two years, he is planning to return to mining sales in the near future and says he is excited to be rejoining the workforce.

While the physical scars from Meeks' time in Vietnam have healed, the emotional effects of combat took their toll, and in 2003 he was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder and underwent treatment.

"The Veterans Administration did a fantastic job, both the local clinic here and in Albuquerque," said Meeks. "Their attitude is amazing, considering the number of soldiers they're having to deal with every day."

Meeks said the care soldiers are receiving now is a drastic improvement on what he experienced when he returned from Vietnam in 1971.

"It's night and day. When we came home, conditions were just terrible for Vietnam veterans," he said.

PTSD was not widely recognized or accepted when Meeks returned from war, he said, and despite improved support for returning veterans, Meeks is concerned with the amount of time modern soldiers are having to serve in combat situations, leading to more soldiers dying from PTSD-related suicide than from actual combat.

"I spent 10-and-a-half months in combat," he said. "Now, many soldiers have spent three quarters of the last 10 years in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, so it's sad but not surprising that the PTSD situation is where it is. Soldiers coming home need more counseling and more community support with finding jobs and restarting their lives. That's what people need to understand."

Jim Clark, commander of the Farmington VFW, shares a similar military history with Meeks, though in a different arena. He served as Army Calvary reconnaissance in Europe during World War II, from 1942 to 1946. As such, Clark was also responsible for scoping out the enemy and reporting their movements and locations.

Clark agrees that modern-day veterans face many challenges, and is also concerned about the support veterans are receiving.

"There are too many homeless veterans now, and too many out of a job just trying to get by," he said, citing daunting red tape that often throws impenetrable roadblocks to the help veterans need.

"It sometimes takes years for veterans to get their benefits after they file disability claims, and I don't think the situation has improved," he said.

Although the two veterans served their country during vastly different wars, separated by many years, their message is similar. Both men want the public to be mindful of those who served our country, and they hope efforts to improve support for veterans will continue.

"What I want people to know is that we have a lot of young vets out there that have selflessly sacrificed, maybe more than any other group in history. The way we've treated these young vets speaks well of this country, but we need to keep supporting them," Meeks said. "I also would just hope that if we get in another war, there aren't any Vietnam vets around to see it. Most of all, I believe that whatever we can do to avoid more war makes sense."