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Veteran of Army and New Mexico National Guard remembered for dedicated service

Soldiers with the North Carolina National Guard's Military Funeral Honors fold an American flag during a practice funeral service in Raleigh, N.C., Sept. 4, 2014. Last year, the NCARNG MFH program provided honors for 3,422 veterans who were current or former members of the military. (U.S. Army National Guard Photo by Staff Sgt. Mary Junell)

Jessica Arias was surprised to see a large mirror on a wall across from the desk of her father, Gen. Paul J. Peña, when she visited his office.

She did not believe her father was a man of vanity or ego. So she asked him about the mirror.

“Jessica,” he said. “Every day I have to make tough decisions. And if I can’t look myself in the eye and make those decisions, then I’m not fit to lead.”

Peña, 65, a 40-year veteran of the U.S. Army and New Mexico National Guard, died Aug. 8 of lung cancer.

“He was a fantastic logician, an expert in his field, an incredible officer in the New Mexico National Guard,” said Maj. Gen. Kenneth Nava, adjutant general for the Guard, who served under Peña during a deployment to Iraq in 2009-10.

“He was a master at getting additional resources,” Nava said. “… Everything he did was to equip the soldiers with the tools they needed to do their jobs. He was always trying to take care of his soldiers first.”

Paul Peña was born Nov. 7, 1953, in the village of Madrid, though he was mostly raised in Santa Fe. His father, John Peña, had served in the U.S. Army and discouraged his son from joining the military.

Paul Peña’s wife, Rosalie, said she recalled her husband saying he had been afraid to tell his father he planned to join the Army after graduating from Santa Fe High School in the early 1970s. The elder Peña died in 1977, long before his son, who started out as an enlisted infantryman, had worked his way up the ranks to general.

“I wonder what dad would say if he knew I had made it to general?” the younger Peña asked his wife before his death.

Rosalie Peña served in the National Guard for 30 years. The two met when they were both on deployment in Germany, but they did not start dating until they encountered each other again in Santa Fe.

Friends and family members said Paul Peña had a built-in instinct to serve his country in the fading days of the Vietnam War, an ambition fueled in part by his participation in Santa Fe High School’s Junior ROTC program.

He held an array of jobs in the early days, his wife said, including serving as a tank driver, mechanic and ordnance officer.

His two brothers, Frank and Ralph Peña, also joined the military.

Paul Peña’s daughter, Stephanie Peña of Albuquerque, said her father was a “natural-born leader.”

“He was very proud of his country,” Arias added. “Patriotic songs were always very close to his heart.”

Out of uniform, Peña’s children said, he could be a playful father who liked to tease, boat, camp and ride motorcycles. He also liked old cars, including a 1970s Plymouth Duster that his wife recalled him racing around downtown Santa Fe.

She, on the other hand, drove a lowrider much more slowly, leading to conflict between the two — fast versus slow, lowriding versus drag racing.

“We said, ‘This is gonna tear the marriage apart,’ so we sold the cars,” Rosalie Peña recalled with a laugh.

Paul Peña retired from the military on his 60th birthday — Nov. 7, 2013.

His failing health kept him from enjoying motorcycle riding in recent years. Whenever he heard the sound of motorcycles passing the family home, just a mile away from the New Mexico National Guard base in Santa Fe, Rosalie Peña could see “he was hurting,” she said.

Arias said her father died peacefully at home, surrounded by family members and friends.

Looking at a bookshelf full of his military medals and honors, patriotic statues such as Revolutionary War soldiers and busts of American eagles, she said her father loved everything about the United States.

“He loved eagles,” she said. “He believed they embodied loyalty. I think the eagle is his spirit animal.”

Along with his wife and daughters, Paul Peña is survived by his son, Thomas J. Peña, as well as four siblings and five grandchildren.

The family plans a Mass for Peña at 11 a.m. Tuesday at Cristo Rey Catholic Church, followed by a 1:30 p.m. burial service at the Santa Fe National Cemetery.


© 2019 The Santa Fe New Mexican