Retired Col. Victor "Vic" Fernandez, a 30-year Army veteran who did two tours in Vietnam, was hurt when he returned to the United States to little reception, his friend and fellow Knight of Columbus Robert Condron said. Fernandez dedicated his life after retiring from the military to ensuring that today's soldiers never knew that feeling.
Fernandez will receive his reception posthumously in early October when he is buried at Pikes Peak National Cemetery. The 374-acre site located off Drennan Road east of the Colorado Spring Airport, is the culmination of a decades long effort Fernandez spearheaded to get the Pikes Peak's region's 80,000 veterans a final resting place close to home.
"I think God is keeping me alive so I can be buried there," the Vietnam veteran told The Gazette in 2017.
Fernandez's words were prophetic. The cemetery opened in 2018 and Fernandez died Thursday after a battle with cancer. He leaves behind his wife, Sherry.
A native Coloradan from Trinidad, Fernandez grew up in a home with a long tradition of military service. His great grandfather fought in the Civil War, his father was a World War II veteran, his uncle was captured at the battle of Corregidor in World War II and survived the Bataan Death March. Naturally, Fernandez found himself graduating from West Point in 1959 with a degree in mechanical engineering. He is also a graduate of the Army War College and the Command and General Staff College.
He was the recipient of the Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Clusters, the Army Commendation Medal with five Oak Leaf Clusters and the Defense Superior Service Medal, among others. His battery also received a Meritorious Unit Citation. His 30-year career included two tour in Panama, two in Germany and multiple stateside postings in addition to his time in Vietnam.
He remained connected to veterans after his retirement, attending welcoming parties at airports for soldiers returning home from Afghanistan. Sometimes he'd be there at 2 a.m., Condron said.
"“He wanted to make sure the soldiers had a cheeseburger and some French fries waiting for them after that 11-hour flight," Condron said.
He also fought for the veterans of El Paso County for nearly two decades.
The mission was simple: bring a Department of Veterans Affairs Cemetery to the Pikes Peak Region where the vast majority of the state's veterans live. Previously, Fort Logan National Cemetery in Denver was the state's only VA sanctioned cemetery. That cemetery was nearly two hours away and at times unreachable in the winter when Monument hill froze over.
Fernandez alongside Col. Joe Henjum and Command Master Sgt. Ralph McCutchen both U.S. Air Force retired, formed the Pikes Peak National Veteran's Cemetery Committee in 1999.
The cemetery was his dream, Condron said. Though he had many allies in the fight "he was the candle burning bright on that particular topic," Condron added. The committee heard "no" early and often from Veterans Affairs who had a rule that forbade a new cemetery to cover a community within 75 miles of Fort Logan.
"In order to get anything done we had to get congressional approval," Fernandez told The Gazette.
Fernandez found an ally in freshman U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn who met with the committee prior to his 2006 election. Lamborn, the son of a World War II veteran, made it a priority. In a bipartisan effort featuring Lamborn, Democrats Ken Salazar in the senate his brother John in the House, the committee was able to get a field hearing with then VA Undersecretary William Tuerk on May 2, 2008. Tuerk flew into Denver, went to Fort Logan and then set out to Colorado Springs adamant that the Denver-based cemetery was adequate. On his way down Interstate 25, Tuerk encountered something Coloradans are all to familiar with, a late spring snowstorm that blanketed Monument hill. That drive changed Tuerk's mind.
"God works in great ways," Fernandez said.
In a statement, Lamborn celebrated Fernandez's leadership and tenacity.
“Victor Fernandez not only served his country honorably in the Army but in recent years, was a stalwart proponent of the Pikes Peak National Cemetery so that members of the military have a dignified final resting place,” Lamborn said. “His leadership was indispensable in establishing the national cemetery.“
In a moment imprinted in Condron's memory, Fernandez was named 2018 Veteran of the Year by El Paso County Veteran's Services. Fernandez gave a speech upon receiving the award.
“No single person receives this honor alone ,” he said at the ceremony. “This is a great honor, I’m really proud, but it’s not all about me. It’s all about the veterans. It’s a real family.”
Condron said the retired colonel received an "outpouring of love" that day as everyone in the audience had been impacted by Vic.
The Pikes Peak National Cemetery was officially dedicated May 25, 2018 and received its first burials that November.
The other pillar in Fernandez's life was his dedication and commitment to the Catholic church, Condron said. He was a founding member of Mount St. Francis Council #12228 and served as grand knight of the Catholic men's Knights of Columbus.