Martin Sisneros has given back — in more ways than he can even count — for the love of his country and community
There are everyday heroes who do what they do, not for praise or plaques or recognition.
But there is something that compels them to serve, a driving force behind their altruism.
For Martin Sisneros, the News-Bulletin’s 2013 Citizen of the Year, his desire to serve his community comes not only from his family but from something that happened when he was 18 years old.
And, as the saying goes, it didn’t kill him so it made him stronger.
Sisneros said he grew up watching his father, Abenecio, help his community.
“I found myself getting involved without thinking about it,” Sisneros said.
As a child, he was part of the youth choir and youth group at Our Lady of Belen Catholic Church, and he continued to be a part of the choir and church ministries as an adult.
In 1985, he became president of the family business, Sisneros Brothers Manufacturing.
As he was getting his bearings as an adult, Sisneros became more and more involved with his community. The first civic group he was part of was the Valencia County Hispano Chamber of Commerce, which he helped found in 1995.
“It was hard,” he recalls. “How do you convince people that this brand-new group is a worthy organization to support?”
But people were convinced, since the chamber is still around and proud host of the largest matanza in the world, its annual event that raises money for local scholarships.
He also became involved with the Carrie Tingley Children’s Hospital. His youngest son was a patient there.
One day while he was at the hospital visiting, Sisneros saw a little girl and her mother.
“She was so physically disabled, it hurt to look at her. And she was so beautiful at the same time,” Sisneros said.
He heard the girl talking to her mother, worried about how they were going to pay for a new walker she needed. Sisneros sought out a staff member, asking how he could help.
“I was just going to write a check for her,” he says.
Instead he was asked if he would like to do something that would help that little girl and all the other children. He joined the Carrie Tingley Hospital Foundation board of directors.
The foundation raises funds annually through its Aaron’s MUDD Volleyball Tournament to support both the hospital and patients and their families.
Yvonne Sanchez, co-owner of Rio Grande Financial Network, served on the Valencia County Hispano Chamber of Commerce board with Martin for several years and knows him as a fellow business owner.
She said he was instrumental in starting the chamber and praised him for starting the Valencia County Apprenticeship Training program.
“I know that, personally, Martin has inspired me to be more involved in the community. I think he has instilled that in a lot of business owners,” Sanchez said. “I worked with him on developing VCAT and seeking out grant money to cover the cost of training. He used a lot of his own money to get things going. He also recruited other businesses to get involved with this training and mentoring program.”
Sisneros said he and his brothers started the apprenticeship training program at the shop for the youth of Belen, to teach them the skills for good paying jobs.
“You know what Belen’s biggest export is? Our kids,” he said. “There’s no jobs here, no training, no reason to stay.”
Through the chamber and VCAT, Sanchez said Sisneros encouraged all of his fellow business owners to get involved in the community and its youth.
“There was a need in the community, and a need in his business, too,” she said. “But he always looked at how to help his employees — offering better training, so they could get better paying jobs.”
Sanchez said Sisneros and his family are “so very humble. They are successful and felt it was time to return that. They don’t take it for granted at all. They’ve been fortunate, so they are just paying it forward.”
Once Sisneros learned how to say yes, he was asked to serve on board after board. He served as the commander of the Disabled Veterans Luperto Garcia Chapter 29 Post for seven years. The post has more than 300 members in the county.
At one point, he was serving on nine different boards at the same time, working full time, attending classes at the University of New Mexico-Valencia Campus, helping his wife raise five sons and care for two foster children and serving the needs and ministries of his church.
“One time I started to count just how many boards, total, I’ve served on,” he said.
Sisneros stopped when he reached 27.
So what motivated Martin to be of service to his community to that extent? It was a promise made to God when he was 18.
After joining the Army, Sisneros was sent to Fort Leonardwood in Missouri. He started out as a healthy, strapping young man from the Land of Enchantment. He would leave a 93-pound shell of himself.
During his training, he became sick — projectile vomiting, weakness that eventually became complete paralysis. He spent three months in the intensive care unit, completely paralyzed, yet completely aware. His wife, Sandra, by his side the whole time.
“If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be here. She never left me, the whole time,” he said. “She stayed by me, 1,000 miles from home.”
The young couple had only been married six months before Martin enlisted.
“We didn’t think he was going to make it,” Sandra remembers. “The first day he got there, he was able to write a little. About a day later, he couldn’t even do that. I had to do everything for him.”
By the time he left the hospital, Sandra says her husband was so thin he was “all feet and eyes.”
Sisneros promised God if he survived, he would take care of his people, give back in whatever capacity he could.
That was what he thought was motivating him to continually say yes.
But then things changed in the spring of 2008. He decided to retire from the Bank of Belen board of directors, now MyBank, where he had been board chairman since July 2004.
When he made the decision to take some time off, slow down, there it was — post traumatic stress disorder.
“I always kind of knew. But I spent all those years running from it,” he said.
When his oldest son came back from Iraq, something was wrong. Trying to help his son, Sisneros looked up the symptoms of PTSD. He himself had 10 of the 11 symptoms.
“All that time I kept denying it. ‘It’s not me, I don’t have a problem. It’s everybody else,’” he said.
Sisneros talked with his wife and promised her on his next visit to the VA Hospital, he would tell the nurse the truth.
Sandra made a pre-emptive strike, setting an appointment for the next day. Within an hour of his arrival, Sisneros was talking to the head psychiatrist and part of the Beacon Team, an intensive group treatment program for vets with PTSD.
Over the next three years, Sisneros learned to deal with the emotions he experienced as an 18 year old — the trauma of the paralysis, the very real possibility he was the subject of a human experiment.
“I worked on making myself better. I got off a lot of boards,” he said. “I realized I had just been running. There was public Sisneros, who was strong and competent. But when I got home, the mask came off and I was a wreck.”
As Sisneros worked to heal himself, his desire to help others was still a big part of him. So he decided to focus on two groups that meant the most to him — children and veterans. He became a member of the Friends of Ranchos de los Niños, an orphanage in Mexico.
He and Sandra make trips to the orphanage twice a year, more if they can.
“A lot times they just need to be held and talked to,” Sandra said.
They help the children with homework, teach them English and learn Spanish in return. While there, they help with minor repairs and buy necessities, such as beds, for the orphanage.
“It’s a lot of work but a lot of fun,” she said. “We’re real attached to the kids. They have a special place in our hearts.”
Sisneros has also set up vocational training programs there so the children will have work skills after they finish school.
As he disengaged from different boards, his sons stepped up to serve. Fernando is on the Hispano chamber board and sits on the board of directors for the Carrie Tingley foundation and Abenicio works with the orphanage now.
“It’s cool to see them doing their own thing, serving the community and these organizations,” Sisneros said.
His son, Martin, and his wife are involved with the Belen MainStreet project and the Belen community garden.
His youngest two boys, Juan Diego and Isaiah, help with different organizations and events their brothers are involved in, such as the MUDD Volleyball Tournament.
“They support each other,” Sisneros said with pride.
As he has come to grips with his own issues and the PTSD, Sisneros says he wants to reach out to other men and women in the same situation. When he was attending the group therapy meetings at the VA, Sisneros said he saw a lot of faces just like his. Seemingly happy, successful businessmen.
“I was surprised how many were successful businessmen. When they came back, they did the same thing I did. They found something to focus on, their careers, and just ignored it,” he said. “I see the guys coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan going through the same thing. ‘I don’t have a problem. It’s everybody else.’ I can reach out so they are not going through this alone.”
After his illness and paralysis, Sisneros said the Army diagnosed him with Guillain-Barré syndrome.
He thinks it’s something else entirely. When he was in basic training, he was given several inoculations to prepare for overseas deployment. But one stuck out. He remembers being called into a room, where a doctor took single syringe out of a steel box and gave him an injection without explanation.
A few days later, Sisneros was sick to the point of projectile vomiting. He couldn’t get out of bed.
He was taken to the base hospital and, within 20 minutes, admitted to the ICU and put on a ventilator. He was in the beginning stages of a full-body paralysis. If he hadn’t gotten treatment when he did, the paralysis would have spread to his chest and he would have stopped breathing.
After he was medically discharged from the Army, Sisneros requested his medical records and began researching. Even though he was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré, he didn’t believe it.
“I think I was given an experimental botulism vaccine,” he said.
In researching one of the doctors on his chart, Sisneros found out one of the men who had given him medical treatment before he fell ill was an Iranian defector, the country’s head of biological and nuclear warfare.
But whether his diagnosis is accurate or not doesn’t seem to matter to Sisneros. Sandra said he has visited Guillain-Barré patients in the hospital to offer his support.
“He went to see a young boy about a year and a half ago. He just sat and talked with him for a while,” she said. “That was part of his promise. He is just so kind-hearted and loves people. Even though he has been sick, he is still pushing himself. He helps as much as possible.”
Now 51, Sisneros says he doesn’t know what it’s like to go a day without pain. He still has pain in his hips and legs from the illness.
“As a kid, all I ever wanted to do was be a solider. Because of what happened, I feel like something was taken away,” Martin says.
He says this standing next to the War Hero’s Memorial in Jarales, watching members of the New Mexico Air National Guard. They are clad in protective suits, standing in the basket of a lift that takes them nearly 15 feet in the air, up to the T-33 jet at the memorial.
The guard members, along with several local businesses, have volunteered time, money, material and equipment for a face-lift project of the plane — a brand-new paint job.
Sisneros has helped them locate and purchase materials such as paint and sprayers, coordinating deliveries and taking advantage of discounts where he can, saving the project about $7,000.
But the project is more that just doing a good deed for Sisneros.
He nods toward the four-sided marble monument, bearing the names of fallen soldiers from Valencia County.
“To know their blood is on foreign soil, that they gave the ultimate sacrifice, that means something,” he said.
Although Sisneros’s time in the Army was short, the commander of the unit doing the painting at the memorial, Col. Daniel Jaramillo found a way to use a long-standing military tradition to honor Sisneros for his help — Jaramillo “coined” him.
When a solider goes above and beyond the call of duty, he is often given a large decorative coin by an officer. There is no record of the commendation, no paper trail. It’s passed from officer to solider in a firm handshake in front of the company.
“You kind of know something is going to happen, but … wow,” Sisneros said. “This is something I never expected. It means so much to me.”
His brown eyes mist over. He holds the coin up.
“When I die, this is going with me.”
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