SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) – Thanks to two men, thousands of miles apart, a New Mexico family now has a piece of their loved one, killed in Normandy 75 years ago.
David Billingham is a military historian. While doing excavation work in Normandy, he made quite the discovery. He found a dog tag belonging to a New Mexico man killed in the invasion 75 years ago: David Solomon Ortiz.
“As an historian, an amateur historian, you find lots of things that make sense in terms of the place. Finding something that makes sense in terms of an individual, and then to track that individual’s history down, it’s a pretty special feeling,” said Billingham. “I think finding something that’s so personal, I never regarded what I found as mine. I think what I found, I regarded myself as a custodian of it.”
Finding no clear connections to Ortiz’s family, Billingham finally found a photo of his grave at Santa Fe National Cemetery, taken by a Placitas local, Ron Overley. Together, Billingham and Overley then set out on a two-year search, finally locating the family with the help of Ancestry.
“I would give him pieces of the puzzle that we would uncover,” said Overley. “History isn’t the past. History is just what we know about the past and sometimes it’s a hard dig.”
Doing something many others wouldn’t, Billingham traveled from the UK to New Mexico on his own dime to hand-deliver the war momento to the Ortiz family. Now, the dog tag will go to the next generation — Ortiz’s great-nephew, 21-year-old David Ramon Ortiz.
“I stand before you and vow that it will be treasured and be passed along to another Ortiz, along with the stories of our tribe that we all know in our hearts. I will not let you down,” David Ramon Ortiz told members of his family during a memorial service on Tuesday. “I was overjoyed but I also recognize the great honor and weight and this is going to be something I will keep with me for decades to come until we can pass it along to the next generation of Ortiz’s after me.”
The family says he was chosen because of his dedication and passion for the family, always being there no matter what the circumstances or occasion — from celebrations to funerals and more. It’s an honor he doesn’t take lightly.
Billingham also recognizes the incredible circumstances that brought them all together.
“I think finding a dog tag with the name David at the beginning of it, and realizing there’s so many Davids in the family and being a David myself, I think there was something extra special there and extra magical,” said Billingham. “It does feel like it’s the end of a very long journey for David S. Ortiz in terms of leaving such a beautiful place like this and finally, for the family some closure in terms of what was happening for him in those dark days. That’s a pretty special feeling, I think, for anybody.”
It’s a story spanning multiple countries and thousands of miles. The connections made between these strangers are truly remarkable.
“I can’t think of a more fitting end to a journey that started with a very, very cold, wet Normandy afternoon in May 2017,” said Billingham. “It’s beautiful.”
There is only one family member still alive who knew David Solomon Ortiz. Zella was just a child when he passed. Now in her 80s, she was also at the service this week.