FARMINGTON – During a memorial service today, family and friends remembered a local veteran who was part of a lawsuit that tried to hold contractors responsible for health problems service members said were caused by the burning of hazardous waste in Iraq and Afghanistan.
New Mexico Army National Guard veteran David Montoya, 45, who served 23 years of active duty, including two tours in Iraq, died on April 12 after a lengthy illness.
Col. Richard Rael commanded Montoya in the 515th Corps Support Battalion from 2003 to 2005 in Iraq.
In comments about Montoya's military service, Rael shared a story about Montoya flying into the Green Zone in Baghdad, the capital of Iraq, with a wounded solider.
Montoya did not know the solider but held his hand until the helicopter arrived at the medical site, Rael said.
"He didn't care about himself. He gave a fellow solider what they needed," the colonel said.
On a table were photographs of Montoya during his military service along with mementos including letters from his daughter, Operation Iraqi Freedom patches and a special edition of Time magazine that focused on Hurricane Katrina, where he was involved in recovery efforts.
A second table displayed items that showed his hunting skills, including a mountain lion hide. His devotion to family was shown in photographs.
In July 2015, Montoya joined a class action lawsuit filed against Halliburton and KBR Inc. over the companies' use of open-air pits to dispose of waste in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The pits were used to burn items such as medical waste, hydraulic fluids, lithium batteries, tires and human body parts, according to court documents.
The veterans claim exposure to smoke, fumes and ash from the pits caused health problems, ranging from respiratory illnesses to cancer.
Halliburton and KBR Inc. have stated they were operating under the direction of the federal government when burning the waste and are not responsible for health issues, according to court documents.
Montoya said in an interview with The Daily Times last year that he was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 2012 and lung cancer in February 2014 and attributed the causes of both to exposure to the burn pits.
Flora Youell, Montoya's mother, said after the service that the health impacts believed to be related to the burn pits should be exposed and the companies need to be held accountable.
Also situated in front of the room where the service was held was a New Mexico flag Montoya gave to the Eleventh Judicial District Court in November.
The flag was given to him in 2003 by a cousin who was a court employee and it accompanied him throughout his deployments in the United States and around the world.
Other comments focused on Montoya's unselfishness and desire to go the extra mile to help people.
Many spoke about how Montoya touched their lives whether it was through friendship or military service.
Farmington residents Mike Culver and Jesse Estrada spoke about hunting trips they took with Montoya.
Culver said Montoya was like a little brother and said he was an incredible guide and hunter.
"He was a true brother, and I will always miss him," Culver said.
"David had a heart big enough to fill this room. ... The last words I heard him say is, life is love," Estrada said.
The service included a final roll call, a three-volley salute, playing of taps and a flag presentation to Montoya's children, Nicholas, Kristin and Nathaniel "Bear" Montoya.
Kristin Montoya said after the service that she talked to her father every day and that will be among the things she will miss.
"My dad was a great man. …I feel like my dad raised us the way he wanted us. I know my dad was very proud of us," she said.
She added, "We knew what a great solider he was. We were always so proud of him."
Inurnment will be on Wednesday during a private service at the National Cemetery in Santa Fe.
Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636.