New Mexico VA Health Care System
Therapy and Communication through Ham Radio
In the day and age of modern communication, most people envision the Internet for email and instant messaging, texting, or the old fashion phone call. However, for some Veterans at the Raymond G. Murphy VA Medical Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the ultimate form of communication is the ham radio.
According to the National Association for Amateur Radio, ham radio is a popular hobby and service that brings people, electronics, and communication together. People use ham radio to talk across town, around the world, or even into space, all without the Internet or cell phones. It's fun, social, educational, and can be a lifeline during times of need.
Army Veteran Don Toland, 69, says it’s not only his hobby, but it’s his therapy. Toland volunteers several days per week operating the New Mexico VA Health Care System’s official ham radio network (N5VA), which can be found on the high frequency of 14.287.
“I’m afraid to be alone,” said Toland. “So, I’m not sure if it’s by design, but many times I am alone here in the radio shack, and this helps me cope with that fear. I can be alone, but communicate with others across the nation on the radio at the same time and it’s not like I’m really alone, if that makes sense.”
The moniker “Ham” was a derogatory term originally given to the amateur radio operators by frustrated commercial operators who felt amateurs were causing too much radio interference. Amateurs, possibly unfamiliar with the real meaning of the term, picked it up and applied it to themselves. To curb interference, Congress approved the Radio Act of 1912, which required amateurs to be licensed and restricted to the single wavelength of 200 meters.
Operating on a shoestring budget and donated equipment, the NMVAHCS’ official network has been in operation since 1965. It is a key element used for disaster preparedness, and a form of communication for Veterans across the state and country who may need local VA information.
Twenty-year Air Force Veteran Bob Minton, 59, views the ham radio group as a means of comradery, but also as a pool of extensive knowledge that he can draw from.
“Some of our volunteers are retired electrical engineers and mechanical engineers,” said Minton. “One of the guys here has his PHD in mechanical engineering, so it’s a great hobby filled with operators who share a passion for ham radio, but are also always willing to help new enthusiasts whenever needed.”
According to Rick Hernandez, New Mexico VA Health Care System’s emergency management coordinator who maintains the radio station operational status for the facility, communication exercises are regularly conducted.
“Our last exercise, Oct. 18, 2018, was the Great American Shake Out,” said Hernandez. “This was an earthquake scenario in Albuquerque. Their mission was to relay operational status of the facility and our 11 community based outpatient clinics around the state to the local emergency centers and the Department of Health in Santa Fe.
“When a disaster hits and we know communications are out, there are certain frequencies that are monitored at home. I can recall operators to the VA and have them set up the station. Depending on the disaster, we can have an operator in the station in 30 minutes. If the roads are damaged and they can’t make it in, they can relay information from their home. We have portable radios to use around the facility to transmit information to other stations. We also have employees who are ham operators, and they too can support the station during a disaster.”
Air Force Veteran Kermit Goettsche, 88, has been volunteering and operating ham radios at N5VA for the past 25 years and is always willing to share his knowledge and love for the hobby with anyone who is interested in learning.
“We all know people across the city and state who are not only ham radio enthusiasts, but can administer the licensing test,” said Goettsche. “So, we can assist anyone with becoming licensed.”
There are 17 Veterans currently volunteering on various days in the radio shack, and according to Goettsche, there’s always room for more.
“Communication is vital,” added Hernandez. “Voice and data is essential to provide anyone with information to survive during a disaster. Ham radio provides that link to federal, local, and civilian agencies. It provides communications when power is out, and when the communication infrastructure is not operational.”
Minton added the group’s motto is, “When all else fails, we don’t.”
If you’re a Veteran, or know of a Veteran, who would like to explore the ham radio hobby, N5VA will not only teach you the ins and outs, they’ll also assist with licensing. Veterans are encouraged to learn more by calling (505) 265-1711 ext. 2321, or by going to the radio shack located on the Raymond G. Murphy VA Medical Center campus Monday through Friday, between 11 a.m. and 12 p.m.