In honor of Veterans Day, the folks at State ECU and I thought it would be a great idea to honor one of our own, a veteran member of State ECU. So, we looked around for someone to interview, and after talking to both members and staff, we found our guy.
His name is Gary Ludi, and he’s a retired Army sergeant first class. He is also the husband of Christine Ludi, State ECU’s senior branch manager in Las Vegas, NM.
I didn’t know much about Ludi, other than he was born and raised in Las Vegas, New Mexico, married to Christine, was deployed during Desert Storm, and, based on the flood of positive emails concurring with his nomination as our main man, a pretty popular guy.
When I first spoke with him, I immediately saw why he’s so well liked. We were on the phone setting up a time and place to meet. And because we’d never met, I described what I looked like so he could recognize me at Starbucks. Ludi then offered a description of himself: “Have you seen the movie ‘Shrek?’ I look like that guy.”
And then, when we actually sat down together, I realized that his quick, humble sense of humor is as impressive as his passion for the service.
Ludi, 60, says he “always had a craving,” to be in the military. Once, when he was a boy, he and his older brother dug a foxhole in their grandparents’ backyard and their imaginations grew with each heave of dirt, until finally the small foxhole became a full-fledged bunker (with an overhead cover and access tunnel too).
By the time he was old enough to enlist, Ludi had his eye set on the Marine Corp. In one of many surprising revelations, Ludi told me he’d been an avid percussionist since the 4th grade and wanted to join the Marine’s premier music academy. “My plan was to join the Marines, get my degree and retire to teach music,” he says.
His mother, Anne Marie Archuleta, however, had reservations about her son joining the Marines. “She said I was too much of hot head, and that they’d tell me what to do and I’d tell them where to put it, and I’d end up in the brig,” Ludi laughs. (A brig is a prison on a military ship).
Eventually, Ludi and his mother reached a compromise: Ludi could join the National Guard. So, in 1973, 17-year-old Gary Ludi signed up for the Guard.
From there, he completed basic training at Ft. Leonard Wood, located in the Missouri Ozarks. “We called it ‘Fort Lost in the Woods’ because it was cold as heck, and in the middle of nowhere.”
Aside from the cold, Ludi says, “I thought basic training was going to be a lot worse.” It’s possible his mother’s fears caused him to over-estimate the severity, but, then it’s also possible Ludi compared himself to his fellow recruits, many of whom enlisted reluctantly. “This was at the end of the Vietnam era, while the draft was still going on, so some of the guys there were only there because they didn’t want to go to jail. It was a scary time,” Ludi explains. “But I was ready for training—I wanted to be a good soldier.”
Not everything in basic training was easier than expected, though. Ludi recalls an exercise in which they simulated a POW camp and trainees had to endure “semi-torture,” then escape and return to friendly territory. That, he says, was tough.
Ludi remained in the National Guard until his wife, Christine, graduated high school in 1975. “When we got married in 1974, she had a year left of high school. And I made a promise to her dad that I wouldn’t let my military career jeopardize Christine finishing school. So I waited until she graduated in 1975 to transfer to the regular Army.”
Abroad in Germany
Ludi’s job as a U.S. service member would take the newlyweds first to Fort Carson, an army installation north of Pueblo, Colorado, and then to Germany. Ludi was also deployed to Kuwait as an operations sergeant in a non-combat unit during the Persian Gulf War, during which time he oversaw the transportation of military equipment.
But, it was in Germany where Ludi fell in love with his job. He did three tours, totaling 12 years, across the country. “I loved it,” he says.
One mission in particular stands out to Ludi. In 1988, he was in Belgium serving as a platoon sergeant in charge of a unit tasked with dismantling an air force base that housed ballistic missiles. The mission was per the newly-minted Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which required the U.S. and Soviet Union to eliminate all intermediate- and medium-range ground missiles (the fear was that these weapons could carry nuclear warheads).
It was an unprecedented mission. The INF Treaty marked the first call for a reduction of nuclear arms, rather than a cap on the number of weapons either country could possess.
“It was an interesting situation, to say the least,” Ludi says of the drawdown in Belgium. “When we were dismantling everything, the life support was going away too.” This meant, among other things, that Ludi and his comrades didn’t have much to eat besides freeze-dried food rations, called MREs, meals ready to eat (MREs are about as appetizing as they sound, which is to say not at all).
“So, we barbecued together a lot, and we had different things to eat,” Ludi says. Several of the cookouts included New Mexican food, thanks to Ludi’s mother. “Fortunately she would send me chile and everything I needed.”
The barbecues were opportunities for soldiers to socialize, drink beer and create a sense of community. Ludi made a point of inviting single soldiers and first-timers to the barbecues. “I knew what it felt like to be alone and away from your family for the first time, especially during Christmas.”
Barbecues weren’t the only way Ludi demonstrated support for his unit in Belgium. He made deeper, more profound gestures, too. For instance, he asked each of his subordinates to give him their family’s contact information, to which he addressed personal letters. “I told them who I was, that their son or daughter was assigned to me, and that I would take care of them. And, that if they [the family] need to get in contact with me, I was readily available for them as well.
As for his own family, Ludi credits his wife for his successful military career. “She supported me 150%. One time, a first sergeant said to me, ‘well, she’s only a spouse,’ and I said, ‘No, she’s as much of the Army as I am.’ Christine was there for me always.”
“Always” came with challenges, Ludi admits. “She put up with a lot. For instance, we had a code. If I called her and said, ‘I’m coming home for lunch,’ it meant I was getting deployed somewhere but couldn’t say where I was going or when I was coming back.”
Christine and the couple’s two daughters, born in 1975 and 1976, traveled with Ludi everywhere, except for Kuwait and classified locations.
A resilient sense of humor
In addition to a supportive wife and family, it’s clear Ludi’s sense of humor got him through his more than two decades of military service. His 22 years are full of enough stories, hijinks and jokes to “write a book,” he says.
One time, several subordinates took a coke machine from the hallway and moved it into their dormitory. “They said they put money in it for cokes, so they felt they owned it,” Ludi laughs. In addition returning the coke machine, Ludi made them dress in full mop gear and polish the coke machine with cotton balls.
Then, there was the time his executive officer, knowing Ludi played the drums, invited him to a “jam session” at the nearby rec center. It would turn out not be a jam session, but rather a rehearsal for an American-German Partnership assembly at the stock hall, several days out.
Ludi was surprised, but game. Then his executive officer to ask if he (Ludi) had a blue suit. Ludi said he did, and when his executive officer asked if it was light or dark, Ludi replied that it was dark. Then, Ludi tells me, “That night, I went home and told Christine, ‘I need to buy a blue suit.’”
It’s moments like these that have filled up his life, Ludi reflects. “You’ve gotta have a sense of humor. Otherwise, you won’t make it.”
Play hard, work hard
As much of a jokester as Ludi was, he worked as hard as he played. He’s highly decorated with numerous medals, awards and citations, including three Meritorious Service Medals (one of which was for his role as platoon sergeant in Belgium), six Army Accommodations Medals, three Army Achievement Medals, one Good Conduct Medal, a one-starred National Defense Medal, a one-starred Southwest Asia Service Medal, a 3-appellate NCO Professional Development, and the Army Superior Unit Award.
Ludi retired in 1995, but he hardly kicked back and relaxed. He worked at the University of New Mexico, helping to develop a telemedicine program, then worked for the New Mexico Behavioral Health Institute. Ludi was also a volunteer emergency preparedness coordinator for the city of Las Vegas and also for the New Mexico Behavioral Health Institute.
But the most prominent theme in Ludi’s post-military life, however, is advocacy. Since 2010 he’s commanded the VFW post in Las Vegas, New Mexico, a fraternal organization for veterans of foreign wars. In addition to coordinating or hosting community events and ceremonies, Ludi helps veterans with everything from obtaining proper medical care to fixing car troubles.
In 2015, Ludi’s work became even more personal. His stepfather, Richard Archuleta, also a veteran, was ill and in a nursing home in Albuquerque, one of five nursing homes in New Mexico that contracts with Veterans Services.
Three of the four remaining nursing homes are in Albuquerque, while one is in southern New Mexico. This meant Richard’s family had to drive two hours from Las Vegas to Albuquerque, just to care for him.
In response Ludi began conversations with Veterans Services, Veterans Affairs and Meadows Home Long Term Care, a nursing home in Las Vegas. Meadows is a state entity because it sits on the New Mexico Behavioral Health Institute’s campus.
Ludi gave all parties the run down: “I said, [the lack of accessible nursing homes] is a burden on military families in rural communities. If they visit a family member at a nursing home in Albuquerque, they can’t stay for a long period of time—unless they have family there—or they have to go back and forth, and that’s expensive.”
Ludi succeeded in convincing the VA to contract with Meadows, which means they will pay for nursing home care if the veteran in need is more than 70% disabled. “I’m proud to say that because of my step-dad, there are now signed contracts that allow veterans to be placed in local nursing home in Las Vegas, and the VA will foot the bill.”
Like a true-blue, humble service member, Ludi is reluctant to take credit for the achievement. Instead he credits his step-father, Richard. “To me, that legacy’s on him, because it was done for him.”
Richard Archuleta passed away in October 2015.
Today, Ludi gets calls from veterans all over the U.S., requesting his help with obtaining medical benefits and more, and he’s always happy to oblige. “I love my veterans. We’re family. I’ll go out of my way to help them.”
There isn’t an official saying that goes, “You can take the man out of the service, but you can’t take the service out of the man.” But if there were, Gary Ludi would be its exemplar. “People know me, what I do and what I feel. I’m very proud, not only to be a New Mexican, but to have served my country. And I still serve my country, by assisting veterans at the VFW post in Las Vegas. And I will do so for as long as I am able.”