Army veteran Eric Espinoza arrived in Roswell a year ago to begin work for the Wounded Warrior Program for the U.S. House of Representatives, and has since traveled across the region helping other veterans get the services they need.
But his most unforgettable moment so far was when he was able to finally deliver to a Roswell veteran a long-awaited service recognition.
“One of the most memorable events since I’ve been here was when I was able to get a Vietnam veteran his campaign medal 42 years after he earned it,” Espinoza said.
Espinoza was assigned to New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District, held by Rep. Steve Pearce. He works from Pearce’s Roswell office, and commutes on weekends back home to his wife and children in El Paso.
Espinoza uses his expertise in military and veterans issues to aid Pearce in policy formation and in serving his active-duty and veteran constituents in New Mexico. He also serves as a field representative, attending events and meeting with District 2 constituents in southeastern New Mexico on Pearce’s behalf.
The Wounded Warrior Fellowship Program provides two-year fellowships with the House of Representatives. The program was established in 2008 and has provided employment for dozens of wounded or disabled veterans.
After growing up in Sweetwater, Texas, where his father was a cotton farmer, Espinoza entered the service in 1998. He attended basic training at the U.S. Army Chemical School at Fort McClellan, Ala.
After graduation, he was selected to attend a Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Recon course, where he became an operations specialist. He spent three years at Fort Stewart, Ga., after that.
The Army sent Espinoza to Camp Casey, South Korea, before assigning him to the 507th Maintenance Co. that supported the 11th Air Defense Artillery Brigade in Fort Bliss, Texas.
Espinoza was deployed to support Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 and achieved the rank of staff sergeant. In 2003, he was selected as the 11th Air Defense Artillery Brigade NCO of the Year.
His most memorable time in the service was the deployment to Iraq, he said.
“It was not the most fun memory, but it was a memory,” Espinoza said.
After he left active service, Espinoza worked for the U.S. Department of Defense for the next five years as an instructor at the McGregor Range Complex at Fort Bliss.
“I loved it,” he said. “When I’m teaching is when I’m at ease. I love to teach and I plan to go back to it soon. It’s why I decided to go back to school.”
Espinoza is certified by the military to teach but decided to enroll at Eastern New Mexico University to earn a bachelor’s degree in education. He eventually plans to teach electronics, most likely when he permanently returns to his family in El Paso.
Inspiring students is the most rewarding experience, he said.
“Seeing the light bulb light up above students’ heads … you can see it when the light bulb turns on,” Espinoza said. “I guess it’s that feeling I get when I finally reach a student.”
As he talks about these plans, his face brightens. Espinoza also naturally inspires others with his sense of pride and honor when he speaks about his military experience and veterans’ issues.
“I enjoy working with the people of southern New Mexico,” he said. “They have welcomed me with open arms in Roswell and he surrounding communities. Although El Paso is my home, I enjoy working in Roswell.”
Espinoza’s work in the district is to act as a liaison or ombudsman to assist veterans with issues they encounter with federal agencies.
“Many times, veterans do not know what their entitlements are,” he said. “I serve to assist and educate them in those areas. Many times, a simple phone call to an agency is all that is required to clear up confusion.”
Part of his job is to provide outreach to veterans and travel throughout the southern district from Hobbs to Carlsbad and Ruidoso, and many other communities.
“For a lot of them, it’s difficult to come to see me, so it’s easier for me to go see them,” he said.
For older veterans, many of them have issues getting help with medical care. For the younger ones, they have questions about educational entitlements, he said. Veterans across the board have troubles dealing with Veterans Affairs and monitoring their disability claims. Espinoza works closely with the American Legion, the Legion Riders, Southeast New Mexico Veterans Transportation Network and Pearce’s office.
For veterans today, Espinoza sees many of them struggle with the scars of war.
“Veterans are asked to do their jobs,” he said. “They are placed in situations and scenarios where their lives are jeopardized daily. Then when they’re back stateside, it’s difficult to forget the things they’ve seen.”
The second biggest issue for them is having to deal with the VA and the administration’s backlog of disability claims.
“To give the VA credit, they have gotten better, but they’re way off from where they need to be,” he said.
Espinoza is also involved with community efforts, such as the Roswell Veterans Cemetery Committee, which is working to break ground on an official cemetery at the South Park Cemetery.
When not working, Espinoza enjoys playing golf, playing video games with his kids, barbecuing and grilling, and mountain biking all over town. He’s also a Dallas Cowboys fan.
“I enjoy spending time with my friends and family,” he said.