JOINT BASE MCGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, N.J. --
On Oct. 19, 2019, the 108th Civil Engineer Squadron’s building on Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., was dedicated to Capt. Robert M. Mendez who passed away from kidney cancer on Jan. 16, 2017.
“We, as the military, don’t put people’s names on buildings that often,” said Lt. Col. Eric Balint, 108th Mission Support Group, deputy commander. “It is a lengthy process. It requires a lot of justification, verification, reviews, checks, rechecks, and approvals at the highest level of the military. Having a building memorialized to someone is a permanent and lasting honor that is reserved for the most deserving individuals.”
Robert Mendez was the deputy base civil engineer for the 108th CES. He was responsible for overseeing day-to-day operations of a Prime Base Engineer Emergency Force (BEEF) squadron of approximately 80 personnel to include technical craftsmen and emergency managers. He also managed the military construction and sustainment, restoration, and modernization programs of the 108th Wing in support of multiple missions for the Air Mobility Command and Air Force Special Operations Command.
To his family and the men and women of the 108th Wing, Mendez was much more.
“Rob loved the Air Force, and was a proud, talented, and dedicated Airman,” said Matty Malava Mendez’s stepson. “He was a tremendous father, devoted and dedicated husband, a great son and brother, and overall the most honorable person that I have ever met. When Rob passed, it was devastating not just because he was such a great person, but because it was a life cut far too short.”
In 2001, Robert Mendez enlisted in the N.J. ANG, joining the 108th CES as an engineering assistant. He deployed twice in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and once in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. He also supported recovery efforts after Hurricane Katrina in Mississippi in 2005, and Superstorm Sandy in New Jersey in 2012.
In the beginning of 2016, Mendez started receiving treatment for severe back pain. The pain would later be connected to kidney cancer that had spread throughout his body to include his spine.
“I would remember Rob telling me that he would stop on his drive to work to walk around and relieve his back pain,” said Ruth Mendez, Robert Mendez’s wife. “He was in so much pain, but he still went to work every day.”
“It was fairly common for him to stay after work or after drill for a few hours to talk to someone who was going through something and who just needed to talk to someone,” said Balint. “He had an ability to deeply and personally connect with people that few of us do. He always had our backs. He didn’t seek the personal glory. He just wanted to do right by our people. He was a great leader, and someone who would have developed into a powerful force in the New Jersey Air National Guard - of that I have no doubt.”
In August of 2016, the 108th CES was scheduled for a two-week deployment to Camp Hinds, Maine. This deployment was later the justification used in the package for the building dedication.
“Due to several competing priorities within the wing, there was a lack of experience in the wing to lead this team,” said Balint. “Rob had been receiving treatment for his severe back pain for over a year at this point. Despite this, he did not want the training deployment to fail, so he came to me and said, ‘boss, I got this.’”
During the deployment, members slept in cots, which exacerbated Mendez’s back pain.
“He tried to hide it from everyone, but it quickly became evident that he was suffering,” said Balint. “However, that did not stop him from visiting the job site daily to ensure all construction and activities were progressing as scheduled, nor did it stop him from being actively involved and engaged in the morale of his team.”
As a result of his leadership and guidance, the deployment was successful, said Balint. All personnel received job training that could not be received at home station. Work was accomplished safely and effectively. Several quality control issues from previous rotations were identified and fixed. Many Airmen were recognized by the cadre for their superior performance.
One week after the deployment, Mendez’s back pain became so severe that he stopped going to work. A few weeks later, he was admitted to the emergency room. He was soon diagnosed with kidney cancer that had spread to several locations in his body including his spine. The cancer had compromised the structural integrity of two of his vertebrate.
“Few people can fathom the agony that this must have caused him,” said Balint. “Despite the crippling pain, Rob pushed through and provided the leadership that his people needed. He put the needs of those he led above his own. A true selfless leader.”
In early 2017, Mendez contracted pneumonia and passed away.
“I have a lot of mixed emotions today,” said Ruth Mendez. “I miss him so much, but I am very happy for him. He deserves this honor. I know that he would be so humbled by all of this. He would tell you to follow your dreams and that you can do anything you want to.”
“Even now, I often think of him and wish he was still here and think of what he would say in certain situations,” said Malava, Mendez’s stepson. “It is through his words and encouragement, I found the inspiration to reenroll into community college, doing well, and even getting a scholarship into the University of Oklahoma where I am currently studying business.”
“Today we can ensure that Rob’s legacy will endure and it has an opportunity to be a lasting one,” said Balint. “As I think about it, we as commanders come and go. In 30 years, no one will know me, but they will know who Robert Mendez was because his name, his plaque will be on this building for all to see. It’s not about the lettering or the plaque. It’s about his legacy, and as years pass, those who knew him will start leaving and it’s up to us to make sure his legacy lives on because it is a positive one and it will only strengthen our organization.”