LOS LUNAS — Ahead of Veterans Day, Los Lunas residents gathered to dedicate the river bridge on N.M. 6 in the name of local Medal of Honor recipient Daniel D. Fernandez and local veterans alike.
“To the 6,200 Valencia County veterans who drive over that bridge, be reminded it was named to commemorate your sacrifice, your love of country and your military service,” said VFW Post 9676 Commander Chet Pino during the Nov. 5 ceremony.
In July, after years of working towards the renaming of the river bridge in Fernandez’s honor, the New Mexico Transportation Commission officially approved the new name — the Daniel D. Fernandez Veterans Memorial Bridge.
“Our VFW post bears the name of Daniel D. Fernandez and has since its organizational birth in 1976 … Several of our members are Daniel’s personal friends, schoolmates and comrades in arms during the Vietnam conflict,” Pino said “This makes the dedication of this bridge much more meaningful to those that have served with Daniel.”
Fernandez, whose name also graces a Los Lunas park and the former Daniel D. Fernandez Intermediate School in Los Lunas, was a U.S. Army specialist 4th Class, who died on Feb. 18, 1966, while serving during the Vietnam War. He threw himself on top of a grenade in order to save his comrades while they were rescuing another wounded soldier. Fernandez was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 1967.
Although the project was originally aimed at educating about Fernandez and his sacrifice ahead of the 50th anniversary of his death, the focus quickly shifted to honoring all veterans.
“We were shocked when we found out not many knew of Daniel and his story and as a group we set out to change that,” Jordyn Peralta, one of the 12 Valencia High School National Honor Society students who took up the project beginning in 2015. “After talking more and more about honoring Daniel, we started talking about honoring all of the veterans in Valencia County as well.”
Six of the 12 high school students who first embarked on the project more than five years ago, attended Friday’s ceremony, with the rest unable to attend due to travel or now living out of state.
“The girls have been gone from Valencia High School since 2018, and yet I’ve stayed in touch with them through email,” said their VHS National Honor Society sponsor and teacher Laurie Kastelic. “Staying in touch with them, having them watch anything they could by Zoom. Just staying in touch.”
Although the renaming of the river bridge didn’t meet up with the anniversaries as they had hoped, the students still led other projects to honor the local hero. The students held an art contest in his honor for Los Lunas elementary school students, advocated for the Los Lunas Track Invitational to be renamed in honor of Fernandez and lobbied the state Legislature for two resolutions to be passed — one in honor of Fernandez and one in honor of all New Mexico Medal of Honor recipients.
“When the girls first started talking about these projects with their families at home, some of them had Vietnam veteran grandparents, who had never talked to them at all about war,” Kastelic said. “But, the grandparents began to tell them how important it was that they were doing this. I remember one girl telling me that her grandfather broke into tears, so it was such an important thing for her to be doing.”
The VHS students also raised money to purchase two memorial bricks in honor of Fernandez to be placed at the Angel Fire Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Two of the students, well after they had graduated, traveled from their college in Portales to attend the ceremony, where they met a World War II Medal of Honor recipient.
“I couldn’t stop crying because I realized how important that really was. They were talking with a 93-year-old Medal of Honor recipient,” Kastelic said. “I think it just really touched them.”
The reason behind the wait
Rocio Chavez, one of the original six students who signed on to help with the project and spoke at Friday’s dedication ceremony, said it began how most National Honor Society projects start off — with a sign-up sheet.
“One day, Ms. Kastelic came into our honor society meeting with a sign-up sheet because we needed to do a project with the National Honor Society. I think we began with like six; it was a small amount,” Chavez said. “It just took off from there, and that’s one thing I know I am proud of being a part of at Valencia High School.”
The VHS teacher and her students began speaking with Michael Jaramillo, the public works director at the village of Los Lunas, who led them through the process of renaming the river bridge after learning it would be rebuilt in the near future.
After completing a petition with 75 signatures in favor of the bridge name — triple what was needed — the Los Lunas Village Council completed a resolution advocating for the name change and filed a letter to the New Mexico Department of Transportation.
“They seemed very responsive to it, but it had to come to a screeching halt. The resolution that we had gotten from the village, the name would have been for the bridge they were tearing down,” Kastelic said. “Each bridge has a different inventory number, so that was obviously going to make us wait for a while.”
The project was put on hold until after the new N.M. 6 river bridge finished construction earlier this year, and the name change was officially approved in July.
Although the wait was long, Kastelic’s students said she kept them informed along the way, even though they had already graduated.
“Ms. Kastelic did a really good job keeping us all together, informed. I mean, we all had different lives, obviously with college and everything,” Savannah Armijo, one of the students who worked on the project and attended Friday’s dedication, said. “Life gets crazy, but I think she did a really good job just keeping us updated in emails and letting us know what’s going on with the DOT. With her help especially, we kept in touch with everybody.”
Kastelic, who had worked on many different projects honoring Fernandez since 2005, while working as the librarian at Daniel D. Fernandez Intermediate School, said the bridge renaming would probably be the last, but she still holds Fernandez and his family close to her heart.
“It’s bittersweet,” she said. “This is my fourth project with students and each time I think it’s the last, but I know this is the last because it’s the most permanent one.
“I have adopted the Fernandez family; they are the sweetest people on Earth, they are wonderful. I love working with them. I have loved working with the veterans. It has just been incredibly rewarding for me — probably the highlight of my teaching career.”
Makayla Grijalva was born and raised in Las Cruces. She is a 2020 graduate of The University of New Mexico, where she studied multimedia journalism, political science and history.