By Allen Dale Olson
Albuquerque, New Mexico – How can a custom-painted motorcycle and a county veterans memorial be related? Easy, because both are creations of Vietnam War veteran Larry Hurtado of nearby Pena Blanca. The 100% disabled veteran, who spent some 5-1/2 months in various military hospitals, came home from the war determined to remember and honor the soldiers who served in that war.
The Air Force veteran, known to his friends and fellow bikers as “Wolfman,” first conceived the idea of a veterans memorial in 1972 when one of his best friends was killed in the war. But it wasn’t until 2003 that his initiative really began and when he asked county officials how he should start. Fortunately, one of the officials who took interest in his project – Bill Sapien – was a Korean War veteran who met regularly with him for over a year to help him develop the plan and meet other helpful people.
In the meantime, he dedicated his motorcycle to the memory of those who served in Vietnam. On one side of the gas tank is a portrait of SSGT Juan I. Jacquez, POW from May 5, 1967 to March 27, 1973; on the other a portrait of MAJ George F. Latella, imprisoned from October 6, 1972 to March 20, 1973. The rest of his bike is decorated with paintings and inscriptions that symbolize the units, battles, and legends associated with the Vietnam War and the military who fought it.
All the time Wolfman was meeting with Bill Sapien, more and more ideas for the memorial came to mind – ranging from a statue of a soldier to one of empty boots, a gun and a helmet – and more and more names to be added to the wall kept coming in. Finally, the Sandoval County Commissioners offered land behind the courthouse, but Wolfman wanted it in front of the courthouse. He was proud of being a Vietnam veteran and wanted people to see the memorial. He prevailed.
Memorial or monument? It became both. A high wall lists the names of more than 200 veterans, the rest a place for reflection, a place to hold ceremonies, to honor the dead, the missing, and it has become the Veterans of Sandoval County Monument and Memorial, built with support from other veterans and friends and school mates of Wolfman. He is proud of the grass roots involvement in the project. In a dream, he sensed that three men from the Jemez Pueblo who had died in the war had loved horses as boys, and he wrote a song about them. Family members of the three men were amazed that he knew about their love of horses, and the song has been included in a CD of war songs available from the Memorial.
Larry (Wolfman) Hurtado takes pride in showing how his bike is dedicated to all Vietnam veterans and to those who are or were prisoners of war or who are still listed as missing in action. And he is very pleased with the monument-memorial he nursed into reality.
On November 11, 2006 the Vietnam Memorial was dedicated. Wolfman’s uncle, Sam, himself a veteran, wrote a stirring dedication speech. The text is as follows:
“Today we hallow this ground with the placement of this memorial honoring the sons of the County of Sandoval in
the great State of New Mexico–the proud veterans, and most especially those who made the supreme sacrifice in
a far-too-lengthy conflict in a distant land of whose existence we were scarcely aware. In a prelude to all- out war,
the Viet Nam conflict began with the introduction of a few American military advisers to South Viet Nam in its
dubious struggle against the Communist government of North Viet Nam following the defeat of the French at Dien
Bien Phu. Our involvement in the war gradually escalated to the point where names of places and events like
Saigon, Hanoi, Chu Lai, Tet Offensive, Khe Sanh, Hue and Da Nang became part of our vocabulary. And before
coming to an end in April of 1975, more than 3,000,000 American men and women had served in that war.
Approximately two and one half million people were killed, including 58,000 American Army, Air Force, Navy, and
Marine personnel. One thousand Americans were listed as missing in action, and 150,000 Americans were seriously
wounded. A heavy price, indeed, for a war that was questionable at best. From Sandoval county, 200 served and
10 paid the ultimate sacrifice.
Viet Nam was the longest and most unpopular military conflict in our nation’s history. Therein lies one of its greatest
tragedies. It divided our country as it had not been divided since our great Civil War. Over time, there was so much
antiwar sentiment that those who were so vehemently opposed to the war took their anger out on our returning
servicemen and women. Those of you who are old enough to remember, surely can never forget that our returning
veterans were vilified, jeered, referred to as murderers and even spat upon. A misplaced blame to be sure, for it was
not they who started the war. Wars are started by politicians, not the soldiers who fight them.
And now, to you veterans of that misguided war, belatedly to be sure, we say this:
We recognize that you sacrificed greatly for your country, and we derive great pride from what you sacrificed on our behalf.
We know that the transition to civilian life was very
difficult for you, and that many of you still carry the scars of your experience.
We apologize for the insults that were heaped upon you.
We thank you from the bottom of our hearts for your service to our country.
And may this monument become an enduring testament to your bravery and your devotion to duty and country for all
generations to come, and may it compensate you in some small measure for an honor that has surely been too long in coming.
We invoke the blessing of Almighty God on this memorial that we here dedicate to those who served, both living and dead. We
do so because we are determined that they shall not have served and died in vain. In doing so, and with profound reverance,
we borrow the words of our immortal Civil War President Abraham Lincoln, when he dedicated a great civil war battlefield.
‘. . .we cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow— this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who
struggled in the Viet Nam battlefield, have consecrated it, far above our power to add or detract.’”
And the recognition and thanks still keep coming…