LAS CRUCES, N.M. — A crowd of Vietnam veterans, their loved ones and citizens and government officials gathered to remember and honor a generation of men and women who served in one of our longest conflicts.
The fourth local observance of Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day on Saturday included a groundbreaking ceremony for the new Las Cruces Vietnam Memorial at Veterans Memorial Park, 2651 Memorial Parkway.
"It's very heartwarming and beneficial. When we came home, we were treated like scum. To have people pay tribute for what I did means a lot," said Art Tomczak, 66, of Las Cruces. He said he did two tours of duty in Vietnam.
"I think it's a great thing that this community is getting behind this. It is important to remember the sacrifices that all service people have done. It'll help future generations remember us," said David Langland, 66, who served as a Navy Seabee on the USS Coral Sea during the Vietnam war.
"I'm here because my husband Boog is a Vietnam veteran. He's a New Mexico native and he left from here to go to Vietnam," said Olga Pate, of El Paso.
"This is great. I've got a lot of friends on the wall," said Boog Pate, remembering those who died and are honored on the national Vietnam veterans monument.
Carol Gaines of Las Cruces, who served as a U.S. Marine during the era of the Vietnam war, said she was not there herself, because "At the time I served, no women except nurses were allowed in Vietnam."
She said she is looking forward to seeing the completion of the local memorial.
"It's a time (for those who served in Vietnam) to be recognized. The monument says, 'truly, welcome home,''' Gaines said.
Ceremonies began with a gun salute, and a special blessing ceremony by Native American Warriors, including members of the Eagle Claw Warrior Society of El Paso, who walked a circular wall honoring fallen servicemen and women. Prayers included benedictions in Apache by Hazel Spotted Bird, identified as the great-great granddaughter of Cochise.
She also offered English translations of her prayers "for soldiers who are back here and those that are still serving."
Former Las Cruces Mayor Ruben Smith introduced dignitaries that included current Mayor Ken Miyagishima, national and state legislators, as well as the man who is spearheading yet another monumental effort to honor veterans.
"It was a spinoff to my Bataan Monument," said J. Joe Martinez, who was instrumental in creating the now internationally-renowned Las Cruces monument in Veterans Memorial Park for his two uncles, Jose "Pepe" and Juan Baldonado of Tularosa. The statues depict an actual event when Pepe carried his brother Juan in the infamous Bataan Death March during World War II.
In 2006, Martinez was visiting the Bataan memorial with a friend who had served in Vietnam when the idea for the monument was born.
"He said, 'This is a great park. Where is your Vietnam Memorial?' The next day we started putting concepts and ideas together. Thomas Sotomeyer made a drawing and did some designs. I told him, 'There's no pay and lot of hours. But this is good stuff. It's corazon stuff. It'll make you cry,'" Martinez said.
"Then the economy went bad and we shelved it for a while, then we decided it was time to go ahead again. The monument will cost about $200,000. State Rep. Terry McMillan (R-Las Cruces) was able to get almost half of what we need — $80,000 from the state legislature last year — and now we're ready to break ground," Martinez said.
"The names of 398 who were killed in action in Vietnam and their pictures will be engraved in marble. We are also working to include a little UH-19 Huey helicopter, a tough little aircraft that those who served in Vietnam know well," said Martinez, a field representative for U.S. Congressman Steve Pearce (R-NM).
"This is beginning to be hallowed ground. This is one of the best parks in the United States that honors veterans," Pearce said, in a speech that recalled his own service as a pilot in Vietnam.
"You're the good guys. Don't let anyone tell you that you're not," Pearce said.
President Barrack Obama issued a proclamation declaring March 29 Vietnam Veterans Day in 2012, five decades after the first U.S. Army mission against the Viet Cong.
The proclamation honors the "more than 58,000 [who] laid down their lives in service to our Nation ... Through more than a decade of conflict that tested the fabric of our nation, the service of our men and women in uniform stood true. Fifty years after that fateful mission, we honor the more than 3 million Americans who served, we pay tribute to those we have laid to rest, and we reaffirm our dedication to showing a generation of veterans the respect and support of a grateful nation."
Gov. Susana Martinez issued a proclamation honoring "the warriors and heroes" who served and the 398 New Mexicans who died in Vietnam.
Representing New Mexico State University, Ben Woods said the university has honored "20 of its sons who did not come home from Vietnam, and we honor those people today. We know that no soldier dies until they are no longer remembered."
Individuals, businesses and organizations interested in sponsoring or contributing to the memorial fund may email firstname.lastname@example.org, or send checks made out to Las Cruces Vietnam War Memorial, to Vietnam Memorial, 2231 Sedona Hills Parkway, Las Cruces, NM 88011.