Española man: Forgotten Guardsmen suffering effects of 1980 prison riot

National Guardsmen carry the body of a prison inmate from the main entrance of the New Mexico State Penitentiary on Feb. 3, 1980. More than 30 inmates were killed by prisoners during the 36-hour insurrection. Floyd Garcia of Española, then 20 years old, says he was one of the first Guardmen to arrive at the scene to remove bodies from the prison, and the experience has left him with PTSD. Associated Press file photo

Floyd Garcia held the horror inside for 30 years following the gruesome New Mexico State Penitentiary riot.

“And then the volcano erupted,” he said.

Garcia, an Española resident, was a member of the state National Guard in February 1980 when rioting prisoners took over and killed 33 of their fellow inmates. Garcia said his unit was one of the first to arrive on the scene when Gov. Bruce King called in the National Guard.

Being assigned to the duty of removing “dead, mutilated, burned” bodies from the prison — and having to wade through water in the building polluted with “raw sewage, blood and body parts” — left him with post-traumatic stress disorder, he said in an interview Tuesday.

Speaking about himself and other Guard members who responded to the riot, Garcia said he feels that the National Guard and the state have “left us out in the cold for the last 30 [plus] years.”

“We’re trying to get the state to take responsibility … for what was done to us,” he said. “We never got any counseling, briefing or debriefing after the riot. We served our community, our state, our country.”

Garcia said he has spoken with lawyers but has never filed a lawsuit against the state.

Capt. Brian Raphael, a spokesman for the National Guard, said Tuesday that the Guard is looking into the complaints of Garcia and others in an attempt to make sure they have documentation necessary to get workers’ compensation benefits.

Since 1980, there has been much written that documents the horrors of the riot, the inmates who were killed and the corrections officers who were taken hostage during the ordeal. But little has been written about the Guard troops or the police officers who had to go into the prison after the slaughter had ceased.

Garcia said he was 20 years old when the riot took place. His wife was expecting their first baby.

Because of his psychological condition, Garcia said, he never was able to work after leaving the Guard. “I suffered nightmares, flashbacks. It affected my relationship with my family, my social relationships. It hurt me. … I haven’t even been able to barbecue since the riot, because the smell brings me back to the smell of burning flesh at the riot.

“I held it all in for 30 years,” he said, before his inner “volcano” erupted.

In 2012, after about a week of sleepless nights — and watching his weight drop from about 177 pounds to 143 pounds — he said, “I knew I had to go to a doctor. Fortunately, my doctor referred me to the right people, and I got to see psychologists and psychiatrists.” During this time, he was diagnosed with PTSD.

“I’m stable now, but it’s never going to get better,” he said.

Garcia is luckier than other Guardsmen, he said. Some of his friends who were deployed during the prison riot later succumbed to drug and alcohol abuse. And some committed suicide.

Garcia said he has contacted many government officials in recent years. While some have expressed sympathy and promised to look into his situation, he’s mostly been frustrated with the efforts. “It took me two years to get the forms for workman’s comp,” he said.

He said he’s written a memoir about his struggles after the riot. “It’s called The Forgotten Ones. They sent us to do this job, and they forgot about us.”

Contact Steve Terrell at sterrell@sfnewmexican.com. Read his political blog at www.santafenewmexican.com/news/blogs/politics.