BELEN — Army Spc. Henry Byrd III always wanted to join the military. He followed his dream, left his hometown, went to war and made the ultimate sacrifice.

Byrd died on June 24, 2007, from heatstroke while serving with his unit, the 1st Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, in Iraq. He was 20 years old when he died.

On Monday, the Belen city councilors unanimously voted to name the new Veterans Visitor Center at Eagle Park after Byrd. The council was not required to take action on the issue because the city has never adopted a policy or approved an ordinance pertaining to naming a city-owned facility.

Belen City Councilor Frank Ortega, Byrd’s step uncle, decided on his own to name the building in his honor. When Ortega learned people had complained that he chose his step-nephew’s name to be placed on the stuccoed wall in front of the center, he took the issue to the council for consideration.

Spc. Henry Byrd III

During Monday’s council meeting, the majority of people who spoke told the governing body it would be disrespectful to take Byrd’s name off the building, saying he is deserving of the honor.

Richard Long, whose daughter, Air Force Capt. Tamara Long-Archuleta died in 2003 while on a rescue mission in Afghanistan, and who trained Byrd since the age of 4 or 5 at the Belen Goju Ryu Karate, said the soldier overcame a lot in his life, including fetal alcohol syndrome.

“He went to Iraq and he fought for his country. It would be disrespectful to take his name off,” Long said. “This is an honor for Henry Byrd, and it’s only fitting to name it after him. It’s about honoring someone; it isn’t about dishonoring someone else. I think it should stand.”

Jerry Moya, who was one of Byrd’s teachers at Belen High School, said he remembers Byrd’s goal was to serve his country.

“He decided to join the military during a time when it was dangerous — without hesitation,” Moya said. “We knew he would be headed to Afghanistan or Iraq. It’s not important who decided this, but it would be a great disservice and insult to Henry Byrd if his name was removed.”

Rick Carbajal, who recently retired from the New Mexico National Guard, said he was proud of the Belen Veterans Memorial as well as the visitors center.

“On behalf of my family and other veterans, we see the naming of the visitors center after one individual in no way makes us feel less important as veterans,” Carbajal said.

“You chose that name to honor a member of your family,” he told Ortega. “I’m grateful that you chose family first.”

Erica Trujillo, Byrd’s sister, told the council the family didn’t ask for the center to be named after her brother, but that it is an honor.

“Everyone knew this was being built,” Trujillo said. “Now that it’s named, some people don’t like it. That should have be thought about before … My brother gave his life, and this is a great honor. Going forward, if you don’t like how names are chosen, do something before, not after.”

Henry Byrd II, the soldier’s father, said many of his family members proudly served in the military.

“I tried to talk him out of going in,” Byrd said. “A lot of people bet that he wouldn’t make it, but he did and he died. He paid the ultimate price. You don’t honor him and turn around and try to dishonor him. That’s not right. He had to fight for everything he got. Don’t take it way from him because he deserves it.”

Gloria Sanchez, who made one of the initial complaints about the name of the center, offered her condolences to Byrd’s family, but said, “Many of us have lost loved ones in all the wars.”

She said memorials are important and no one should take their freedom for granted.

“Maybe the family would consider a scholarship in his name or other projects,” Sanchez added. “After giving this much thought and talking to veterans and citizens … I believe it’s unfair to name a visitors center after one individual. It’s unfair to name this after one individual because it belittles the validity of other veterans.”

One other person, Christina Ulibarri, said she didn’t believe it was right for Ortega to have made the decision on his own.

“I send my condolences to the family, but to me, it was inappropriate for Ortega to do this before it goes to the council,” Ulibarri said. “It shouldn’t be done by one person. It was very inappropriate. What you did was wrong.”

Ortega, along with Councilor Wayne Gallegos and their wives, have worked for several months to renovate the portable building that was donated to the city by Belen Consolidated Schools. He said much of the work and materials used for the center was donated or at a reduced price.

“I wasn’t trying to bully anyone; I thought we were going to honor someone,” Ortega said. “I didn’t break any ordinance or policy, and I didn’t have to bring it for a vote.”

Ortega has talked about naming the facility after his step-nephew for months during numerous council meetings. He said the council, mayor and the city’s administration knew of his plans, and no one questioned it until this week. The councilor said his intention was never to disrespect anyone, and he never hid the fact that he was planning on naming the center after Byrd.

“I’m proud of this town, and I would never do nothing to hurt it,” he said.

Councilor Ronnie Torres said he had several people calling him over the weekend about the issue, so he researched whether the city had an ordinance or not about naming a city facility. He didn’t find one.

He also reminded the council and the audience about when the name of Camino del Llano was changed from Sosimo Padilla Boulevard and how it divided the city.

“My concern on this is I don’t want anyone to go through that again,” Torres said. “I don’t want another council to change that name and discredit the name. If we’re going to name it after somebody, I want something in place so another council can’t undo this.”

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Clara Garcia is the editor and publisher of the Valencia County News-Bulletin, as well as the executive editor of El Defensor Chieftain, the News-Bulletin's sister paper in Socorro.
Clara is a native of the city of Belen, beginning her journalism career at the News-Bulletin in 1998 as the crime and courts reporter. During her time at the paper, Clara has won numerous awards for her writing, photography and typography and design both from the National Newspaper Association and the New Mexico Press Association.