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Retired Army Lt. Gen. Edward Baca, who modernized New Mexico National Guard, dies at 82

Retired Army Lt. Gen. Edward D. Baca, credited with modernizing the New Mexico National Guard has died. He was 82. (New Mexico National Guard/Facebook)

Retired Army Lt. Gen. Edward Baca was described as a charismatic, dedicated and visionary leader who modernized the New Mexico National Guard and who proudly represented his state when he was appointed chief of the National Guard Bureau.

Baca died Sept. 15 at his Albuquerque home, surrounded by family, after a long battle with leukemia. He was 82.

“I served under him when I joined the National Guard in 1988 as a private, and he was the adjutant general,” said Maj. Gen. Ken Nava, the current adjutant general of the New Mexico National Guard.

“One of my ties to him is through my grandfather, who was his platoon sergeant in the New Mexico Army National Guard when he (Baca) was a newly commissioned first lieutenant,” Nava said.

Nava, who was appointed to his current position in July 2017, regularly met Baca for lunch “to use him as a sounding board and to ask him for advice about the job he held for 11 years,” he said.

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“Humble and larger than life,” Baca was “physically fit, ran marathons and had a presence,” Nava said. “When he walked into a room everybody knew Gen. Baca was present. He was charismatic and a visionary and was responsible for modernizing the New Mexico National Guard from very antiquated weapons systems to state of the art weapons and the latest F-16 fighter jets.”

Baca was also “a great friend and advocate for all of our veterans, but in particular our Bataan and Corregidor veterans,” Nava said. “He knew all of their stories.”

Col. Craig Gilcrease, director of human resources for the Army National Guard, grew up in Santa Fe across the street from Baca and was friends with Baca’s children.

“Absolutely he influenced me to join the Guard,” he said. “I was essentially part of his family and it was his passion, commitment and love for his family and the military – the brotherhood and energy he had for the National Guard in particular – that really influenced me.”

Gilcrease said Baca convinced him as a young man to attend the New Mexico Military Institute to get commissioned, “and he was there to pin on my lieutenant bar when I graduated.” Years later, Baca was present to pin Gilcrease with his rank of colonel.

Baca grew up in Santa Fe and attended St. Michael’s High School and St. Michael’s College. He later got a bachelor’s degree from Regent’s College in New York and an honorary doctorate from New Mexico State University.

Baca enlisted in the New Mexico National Guard in 1956 and graduated from Officer Candidate School in 1962. He volunteered for active duty service and was deployed to Vietnam, where he served as a platoon leader. He returned to the New Mexico National Guard in 1966 and rose to become Adjutant General in 1983.

Baca was promoted to lieutenant general and in 1994 President Bill Clinton appointed him as the chief of the National Guard Bureau, the first Hispanic so honored. In this position, Baca oversaw 500,000 members of the Army and Air National Guard in every state, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories.

After his retirement in 1998, Baca developed a three-day leadership program that was accredited by the New Mexico State Law Enforcement Academy.

Baca’s daughter, Karen Nielsen, called her father “the complete family man and was dedicated to the New Mexico National Guard.”

Even after he became chief of the National Guard Bureau, her father “continued to fly the New Mexico flag outside his home in Washington, D.C.,” she said.

Son Brian Baca said his father “left a legacy of commitment and service to his country, his state and his family, and had a special bond with every one of his children,” which often involved an outdoor activity or a sport.

“He was my father, my mentor and my best friend,” he said.

Edward Baca is survived by Rita Baca, his wife of 62 years; their children, Brian, Brenda, Karen, Mark, Michelle and David, their spouses, 23 grandchildren, five great grandchildren, and two brothers, Sam and Bob Baca.

He was preceded in death by his youngest son, Daniel.

A funeral Mass will be celebrated at the Prince of Peace Catholic Church in Albuquerque, Sept. 21, 10 a.m., followed by a 3 p.m. burial at the Santa Fe National Cemetery with full military honors including a F-16 Fighting Falcon flyover. COVID restrictions will be enforced and the burial service will be live-streamed on the New Mexico National Guard Facebook page.

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© 2020 the Albuquerque Journal