Carlos Martinez calling staff members of the veterans outreach program where he worked to make sure they completed an important grant application on behalf of veteran employment would not have been unusual, except this time, he was doing it from a hospital bed.

Martinez was being treated for complications from COVID-19 and less than 24 hours later, he suffered a heart attack and died. He was 73. His death came nearly three weeks after his wife, Rita, also passed away from the virus. 

He was “a soldier to the end,” said coworker Sergio Dickerson.

Martinez, a Vietnam War veteran, was the leader of the American GI Forum – National Veterans Outreach Program (AGIF-NVOP) for nearly five decades. The program advocated for veteran’s rights and Martinez was recognized as a staunch champion for those who needed assistance after leaving the service, especially those who became homeless.

On Monday, while the Martinez’s family members passed through the gates of the Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery to lay the couple to rest, several friends, fellow employees, and veterans, prohibited from attending the internment due to public health restrictions, lined the sidewalk just outside the gates to pay their respects.

They held American flags, heartfelt signs, and red, white, and blue balloons to honor a man they admired, who would be buried with full military honors.

American flags lay along the perimeter wall of Fort Sam National Cemetery in memory of Carlos Martinez. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“For those touched by his kindness and inspired by his story it seems particularly cruel that this pandemic has denied Mr. Martinez’s work family, and the community so greatly impacted by his service, the opportunity to say goodbye in the traditional way,” stated Yolanda Suarez, interim CEO of the veterans group. “But the story of the organization that Mr. Martinez built has certainly been one of adapting and overcoming and the AGIF-NVOP family will not let him be forgotten.”

Founded in 1972 by Hector Perez Garcia, the outreach program grew under Martinez’s leadership from five employees to 150 with five offices throughout the state.

NVOP got its start advocating for improved care and services for veterans of the Vietnam War era and has evolved to support post-9/11 veterans and other service members who are transitioning to civilian life. Like many charitable organizations in recent months, AGIF-NVOP has been directly impacted by the spread of coronavirus among the population it serves.

Throughout his 48-year tenure at AGIF-NVOP, Martinez also advocated for veterans through his roles on numerous national advisory boards and most recently on the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.

American G.I. Forum National Veterans Outreach Program President and CEO Carlos Martinez speaks about challenges faced by the more than 1,335 homeless veterans in San Antonio. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone
American G.I. Forum National Veterans Outreach Program President and CEO Carlos Martinez speaks about challenges faced by the more than 1,335 homeless veterans in San Antonio during a press conference in 2016. Credit: File Photo / San Antonio Report

Dickerson, vice president of client services for AGIF-NVOP, said he was in disbelief upon hearing the news of Martinez’s passing only a day after talking to him on the phone about a grant the organization is seeking to help veterans with employment. He called Martinez’s untimely passing a real loss for the organization, for the community, and for the greater American GI Forum. 

“We owe him a huge debt of gratitude,” Dickerson said. “A lot of the things that we’re doing now [in] outreach operations … had never been done before. Everybody would wait for the veteran to come in and provide services. He pioneered the idea of going out to the veteran and finding the veteran on the street, which now everybody does.”

Sergio Dickerson (right) salutes the passing procession of his late boss, Carlos Garcia at Fort Sam National Cemetery. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Veteran Derwin Williams was homeless following his 20 years of service in the Air Force and met Martinez while working for AGIF-NVOP during the past year. Williams, who ambled to the farewell event using a cane while maneuvering across a busy roadway, said he wanted “to show honor to [Martinez] as a veteran, a fellow veteran, as a person is looking out for us.”

Other volunteers with the American GI Forum, a parent organization of the outreach program, also attended and saluted the motorcade. 

Lawrence Romo, a national commander of the American GI Forum, met Martinez while on official business with the organization. Romo called the outreach program Martinez developed a national model for many other homeless service programs, including Haven for Hope. 

Elvira Rivas retired from the local office of NVOP last year after 12 years as an intake specialist and receptionist, but attended the event to pay respect to a former coworker she called “down to earth,” a “great orator,” and someone who never seemed to miss work due to illness.  

Martinez cared for his wife until she succumbed to the virus on July 13. He fell ill shortly after her death. The couple is survived by two daughters, their husbands, and children.

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.