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Vietnam memorial prompts memories, tears in Santa Fe

SANTA FE, N.M. — Ralph Montez of Santa Fe went to see The Wall That Heals at Fort Marcy Ballpark on Wednesday to find the name of an old friend. He found it, etched among the thousands of names on the granite facade: Joseph F. Trujillo.

The visit brought up such a torrent of memories that Montez could not bring himself to return Thursday, when an opening ceremony was held for the traveling monument to the men and women who died during the Vietnam War.

Even before The Wall That Heals arrived in Santa Fe this week, Montez had been waking up with the image and voice of Trujillo in his mind. The two used to hike together in the hills outside La Puebla in northern Santa Fe County in the 1950s.

“He taught me how to find arrowheads,” Montez said.

He recently visited a memorial marker with Trujillo’s name on it in the Santa Fe National Cemetery. Next to that monument is a cross that says “POW-MIA.”

Trujillo isn’t missing any longer. He was killed by a mine on Sept. 3, 1966, and 10 days later was listed as missing in action. But his remains were finally recovered and returned to the United States in late 1992. That December, he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

The 250-foot-long Wall That Heals is a mobile, half-size replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, which bears the names of more than 58,000 Americans who died during the conflict. The Wall, which includes the names of 398 New Mexicans, will remain at Fort Marcy Ballpark through Sunday.

Jan Scruggs, a Vietnam veteran who led the charge to create The Wall That Heals in D.C., spoke during Thursday morning’s ceremony, which was attended by about 300 people, including many veterans. “At age 18 or 19, I’m not sure most people are ready for war, but they end up in war anyway,” he told the crowd, earning a laugh when he remarked that when he joined the Army in the late 1960s, “they had a lot of openings for infantrymen at the time.”

Scruggs said his goal was to create a monument that would help the nation, veterans and members of veterans’ families heal. With that healing, said Vietnam veteran and former city councilor Chris Calvert, comes pain and tears.

Tedd Gutierrez and his wife, Mary, were looking to heal as they searched for the name of Santa Fean Francis X. Nava, who was killed in September 1966. An elementary school is named after Nava, a Marine corporal.

Tedd Gutierrez and Nava used to work together at the Lensic movie theater on West San Francisco Street. “The picture you see of him doesn’t look like him,” Gutierrez said of a somewhat renowned image of Nava in uniform. “In life, he looked younger.”

Tears formed in Gutierrez’s eyes as the sight of Nava’s name brought back thoughts of fun days in Santa Fe. “It’s because of allergies,” he said, but his wife’s look that suggested that wasn’t the case.

Nearby, Santa Fean Carlos Arturo Smith searched The Wall That Heals for the name of former St. Michael’s High School student Freddie Branch, a Marine who was killed in May 1966. Smith was hoping that Branch’s parents would be at Thursday’s ceremony, but he wasn’t really sure he would recognize them.

“This is really emotional,” he said as he looked at Branch’s name. “It brings back fond memories of Fred.” He still recalls how Branch, who lived in Española, hitched rides to and from Santa Fe to attend school and take part in after-school athletics. “He was just a regular Ol’ Joe, a pretty mellow guy,” Smith said.

Trujillo is listed as a Deming resident, although he was raised in the Santa Fe area and the Española Valley by a couple who took him in, Luis and Juanita Trujillo. That’s where Montez first met him.

Trujillo was a quiet, happy kid who sometimes appeared “shabby” because he came from an impoverished background, Montez said. After Trujillo was charged with the burglary of a home in Chimayó (“He was stealing food because he was hungry,” Montez said), Trujillo spent several years in the former New Mexico Boys School in Springer. From there, he moved to Deming, where he graduated from Deming High School in 1965.

Trujillo joined the Marines shortly after. Before shipping out to Vietnam, he returned to La Puebla one last time in the summer of 1965 to say goodbye to his family, and to Montez and his other friends.

He never returned.

Montez did not think of him much afterward — until Trujillo seemed to be reaching out to him recently. He would wake up, he said, and see glimpses of his friend’s face in the groggy morning light. Sometimes he thought he heard Trujillo’s voice.

Montez’s sister suggested that perhaps Trujillo wanted Montez to pray for him, and even set the record straight on his status as a soldier killed in action. A representative of the Santa Fe National Cemetery said the memorial monument to Trujillo was erected in 2001, nearly a decade after he was buried in Arlington, so the cemetery will check official records and perhaps remove or alter the monument.

Thursday’s ceremony included a Posting of the C0lors by the Vietnam Veterans of America Northern New Mexico Chapter 996 Color Guard, a rendition of the National Anthem by Frances Fernandes, and brief speeches by Scruggs, former Army nurse Jane Carson and Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales. Gonzales read the names of 17 Santa Feans who are memorialized on the Wall. During a rendition of taps by bugler David Vigil, many in the crowd stood at attention, saluted and cried.

Montez wasn’t there, but he did visit Trujillo’s memorial marker in the national cemetery here Thursday morning. He still has a letter Trujillo wrote to his adoptive parents in May 1966 from Vietnam, in which the young Marine talked about the planting of chile, the health of his grandmother in New Mexico and the fact that he was losing weight in Vietnam.

Trujillo ended his letter in Spanish: Saludes a todos en Casa. Tengo que irme no hasto otra vez. Que Dios los guille.”

“He was asking God to look over them,” Montez said, reflecting on the letter. “He didn’t ask for God to look over him.”
 

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