LOS LUNAS — More than five years after a group of Valencia High Schools students launched their initial petition, the state has named the new river crossing in Los Lunas after war hero Daniel D. Fernandez.

At its July 15 meeting in Las Cruces, the New Mexico State Transportation Commission unanimously voted to officially name the N.M. 6 river bridge the “Daniel D. Fernandez Veterans Memorial Bridge’’ after the local Medal of Honor recipient.

Fernandez, who’s name also graces a Los Lunas park, the local VFW Post 9676 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.

President Lyndon B. Johnson posthumously awarded Fernandez’s family with the Medal of Honor in 1967.

The journey to naming the bridge began in 2015 when several VHS National Honor Society students and their sponsor, Laurie Kastelic, worked to raise awareness about Fernandez and construct a memorial in a more public place.

After presenting a petition to the Los Lunas Village Council with 75 signatures supporting the bridge to be named in Fernandez’ honor, the council unanimously approved the name in 2017.

“To have the bridge now, it’s very visible for sure. I think that’s really good,” Peter Fernandez, younger brother to Daniel Fernandez, told the News-Bulletin. “ I think that was the whole effort of those young ladies, and Ms. Kastelic was to heighten the awareness.

“Unless you go to the park or go to that school, it’s one of those out-of-sight, out-of-mind kind of things. But, everybody crosses the bridge there, so it’ll be really nice.

“Without their efforts, it wouldn’t have been done,” Fernandez’ brother said. “We’re very thankful and proud of the fact they took on the challenge.”

Following approval at the municipal level, the students created a proposal to be heard at the state level. However, consideration of the proposal was postponed since the state had planned a reconstruction of the river bridge.

“It was actually presented to the previous District 3 commissioner and at that time, there was interest in naming this bridge,” NMDOT District 3 commissioner Justin Gibson said to the NMDOT council in a presentation about the name. “But, knowing that we had that project in the pipeline to replace that bridge, it’s something that’s been postponed until the new bridge was completed.”

The $18.7 million reconstruction of the bridge was completed earlier this year.

“It’s an honor to honor the family of Daniel Fernandez with that naming,” state Transportation Commission President Walter Adams said following the unanimous approval.

Signage on the new bridge commemorating  Fernandez will be placed once the bridge construction project is officially closed out; however, the group that spearheaded the naming is reportedly hammering out the final details for a dedication ceremony to be held sometime in September.

The bridge was specifically designed to hold a memorial plaque on both the east and west sides.

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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. She covers the village of Los Lunas, Los Lunas Schools, SODA and the town of Peralta.