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After traveling with a National Guardsman during his deployment, a New Mexico flag will return to the Eleventh Judicial District Court

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AZTEC — This week, the Eleventh Judicial District Court will welcome back a New Mexico flag a National Guardsman received from the courthouse more than a decade ago.

David Montoya retired in January 2015 after 23 years of active duty in the New Mexico Army National Guard, finishing his career as a master sergeant.

For part of Montoya's military service, he traveled with the 6-by-4 flag his cousin gave him before his deployment to Iraq in 2003. His cousin was a court employee and retrieved the flag after it was retired from hanging in late Judge Byron Caton’s courtroom.

"It traveled everywhere with me. It was crumbled up in my bag. It never left me, it went everywhere," Montoya said.

He said the flag flew in Iraq and then traveled with him during deployments across the United States and to countries such as Iceland, Ireland, Hungary, Romania and Germany.

Montoya initially wanted a state flag because it represented a piece of home, but he did not anticipate the response it would receive from those who saw it. Regardless of military branch or service unit, whenever a fellow New Mexican saw the distinct yellow and red Zia Sun symbol, an immediate connection was made, he said.

One way Montoya captured those connections was by asking people to sign the flag.

Signatures from soldiers, generals, veterans, family, friends and celebrities who visited the troops cover the cloth. The signatures include retired NFL quarterback John Elway, U.S. Sen. John McCain and the late actor Robin Williams.

"There's, by far, no discrimination in who signed that flag," Montoya said, adding some signatures serve as bittersweet memories because they belong to servicemen who have died.

"It's joyful to look at it but at the same time, it's very painful to look at it," he said.

The flag's return to the court building started after Montoya posted a photo of it on Facebook and wrote about finding a good home for the flag. One of the comments in response to the post suggested he contact District Court Judge Brad Dalley.

Dalley, who has known Montoya for years, said he was interested in displaying the flag in his courtroom. When Montoya shared information about the flag, it developed into a collective effort by court personnel to secure its return.

"I don't think it was David's intention to have it end up somewhere like this. It certainly wasn't mine," Dalley said.

Montoya said he is grateful for the flag's new home and called Dalley the flag's steward.

The court has framed the flag and it, along with a plaque explaining its story, will hang in an area north of the main entrance.

There will be a ceremony to dedicate the flag and recognize Montoya's service at 1 p.m. Friday in the court building, 103 S. Oliver Drive in Aztec.

"My service is done, but that flag's service is continuing on," Montoya said.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636.

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