TOM “SPEEDY” GARCIA
TOM “SPEEDY” GARCIA, who served in the Army’s First Air Cavalry Division. (Photo by William Woody)
Montrose will host a half-scale replica of that wall over the course of a long weekend, kicked off alongside Fourth of July festivities, with an opening ceremony today, at 11:30 a.m.
Montrose first hosted the traveling memorial wall, the Wall That Heals, back in 2009, drawing thousands of visitors and veterans.
This year the Montrose Community Foundation hosts a public viewing of the wall, July 3-8, at Cerise Park.
The viewing is dedicated to honoring and remembering Montrose area veterans.
The memorial, controversial when it was built in the early 1980s, was designed by part-time Ridgway resident Maya Lin, so that viewers’ reflections hover over the names engraved on its black granite, symbolically uniting the past with the present.
Montrose resident Richard Crabtree knows the names of dozens on the wall, many of them young men who died in his arms.
Crabtree was a Navy Corpsman Third Class with the Marine Fleet Force serving as a combat medic for a “grunt” unit of Marines who referred to him as “Doc.”
“I was good at stabilizing traumatic situations,” he said.
The tall and burly Crabtree was just 19 in 1966 when he first started going out on recon – day-and-night ambush missions into Viet Cong-contested areas.
“They would send us out on patrol, more or less as bait,” Crabtree remembers. He remembers seeing heavy casualties during his time there, and credits the protection of famous Marine sniper Carlos Hathcock, aka White Feather Sniper, for saving lives in his unit.
“I would not be alive today if it was not for that guy covering for us,” he said of Hathcock.
Crabtree never carried a rifle – he did, however, keep a pistol under his flak jacket for emergencies – so as to not appear to be a threat to the villagers whom he often cared for.
He treated hundreds of children, giving them candy and soap with their medical care, all under the watchful eye of village women.
“My survival strategy was to make friends with those people,” Crabtree said. “I was not there to make enemies. I figured if these people liked me, they may want to help me out.”
In exchange for his attention, Crabtree said the children would disclose the locations of hidden traps and bombs in the area.
In February 1967, with the introduction of plastic M16 rifles, Marines suffered heavy losses (the plastic rifles performed badly). During firefights, Crabtree said, he would provide medical care for wounded Viet Cong soldiers, as well as for the wounded from his own unit.
Crabtree turned 21 while on a mission, and left Vietnam in 1968.
Now, 35 years later, Crabtree still carries painful memories from the war, with shrapnel from a grenade still lodged in his spine, and a “healthy case of PTSD.”
The 100 percent disabled veteran said he has some good memories and many bad memories of “many near-death incidents” that are hard to explain.
“I recognized upwards of 30-plus names on that wall,” he said of the memorial. “I was there when they died; some of them died in my arms.
“I’ve tried to get as comfortable as I can with living with a bunch of ghosts.”
Crabtree said the fact that Montrose is hosting the wall for another time is a tribute to the “memory and honor to those who sacrifice everything.”
“It does get very emotional when I read those names,” he said. “I go back in time and I was there when a lot of them died, and I saved as many as I could, but there was nothing I could do.”
A LIFE INTERRUPTED
As the 1960s spilled into the 1970s, Montrose resident Jerry Wilson was studying for a bachelor degree in English at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio.
Wilson was on campus on Monday May 4, 1970, the day members of the National Guard fired 67 rounds in 13 seconds into a crowd of Vietnam War protesters, killing four students and wounding nine others.
At that time Wilson, the son of a Korean veteran, turned against the war. Less than a year later, he found himself right in the middle of it.
Wilson was drafted in March 1971; by the time graduation rolled around two months later, he was in basic training.
“I didn’t get to go through the ceremony, because I was already in the army,” Wilson said. He later received his diploma by mail.
Wilson worked as a truck driver during college and brought that skill to Vietnam, driving heavy trucks and providing security for long haul convoys. Wilson’s unit transferred regular five-ton trucks, outfitting them with multiple 50- and 60-caliber machine guns (hence the nickname, “gun trucks”).
“I didn’t want to get drafted at first,” he remembered. “I felt like – in a weird sense – I wanted to go over and see what it was all about. At that point, I was very much against it, but I didn’t want to rely on everyone else’s concept of it. Once I got drafted, I decided I wouldn’t fight it and wouldn’t do anything except go. I actually volunteered to go to Vietnam after basic training.” Wilson left the service in 1972; he traveled to Washington last fall, to see the Wall for the first time.
“I think it’s a fitting tribute to the Vietnam veterans,” he said of the Wall. “It’s pretty humbling to see that many names – 50,000 is an abstract number until you see 50,000-plus names in one place.”
“It’s a place where you want to be alone,” he said of the Washington monument.
Wilson said he hopes residents and those traveling to see the Wall in Montrose will realize they are viewing a “very emotional and sacred place.”
A DIFFERENT KIND OF HOMECOMING
Retired Army Col Hal Emick and retired Lt. Col Frank Anderson said the homecoming that current soldiers are receiving are “very different” from the homecoming celebrations Vietnam veterans received. They agree that the Wall is a strong and powerful symbol of remembrance.
“It symbolizes sacrifice to me,” said Emick. “It’s sad that many lives were cut short. There are three reasons we go to war: It’s economical, it’s for strategic interests or threat of American life, and to me [the Vietnam War] wasn’t any of those. It was politics. It was more a disruption in my life than anything. It set my life back at that point, but it gave me meaning and understanding years later,” Emick said.
Emick served for six years in the Air Force, two in Vietnam, working 1972-1974 on a combat crew aboard a C-130 aircraft. After leaving the Air Force, he served an additional 30 years in the army, visiting 54 countries and serving in five different wars.
“I think it’s wonderful that it’s coming here,” he said, of the traveling Wall. “I hope our country remembers that this is the cost of war.
“Only the soldier,” he said, “knows the cost of war – more than anybody.”
Anderson, who served four years in Vietnam, echoes Emick’s sentiments. “In the process of those two tours,” said Anderson, who served first as a combat engineer (1966-1967) and then as an army ranger of the 101st Airborne (1969-1970), “I saw the country go from total support initially to absolute disrespect and lack of support for the latter phases of Vietnam. And those some 50,000 names on that wall – it’s just a horrible, horrible experience to see that, to see so many of our finest soldiers sacrificed.”
He added that the traveling Wall is a “good reminder” to people of what they owe to “the military men and women who volunteer to protect us.”’
‘THEY'RE STILL GONE’
In the memory of his lost brothers in arms, Tom “Speedy” Garcia still rides his Harley Davidson. Speedy was a door gunner and crew chief of a Huey helicopter for the Army’s First Air Cavalry Division, 1967-1968.
“It’s a distinguished sound,” he said of the Huey, “it’s a complete different sound from any other helicopter out there.”
Garcia will lead the security detail while the Wall sits in Cerise Park.
“It really symbolizes the memory of the brothers that I lost over there. I have a lot of friends on the Wall,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for that. I got some on the Wall that never came home and are MIA. They’re still gone,” Garcia said. Volunteers are still needed to help with security each day through two-hour shifts, he added.
Garcia said he is proud that the Montrose community “stepped up” through donations to bring the Wall to Montrose.
The Wall is available for viewing 24 hours a day.
A TOP-SECRET ORGANIZATION
Just a few years ago classified documents detailing missions performed by Montrose resident and Vietnam Green Beret veteran Lee Burkins were released.
“I worked in a top secret organization,” said Burkins, a member of the U.S. Army 5th Special Forces Green Beret, 1969-1970.
Burkins was a member of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, Studies and Observations Group, aka MACV-SOG, which conducted secret missions in North Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
“My job was to organize, equip and train members of the indigenous tribal people and take them on operations, particularly in northern Laos and southern Cambodia,” Burkins said.
The Wall, he said, is a somber tribute to a generation forever changed during that time, and to his generation’s importance in history.
“One of the things I learned is in war, if you’re fighting for your own property, your own land, you fight harder,” he said of why the war proved unwinnable for U.S. Forces.
Burkins now teaches Tao Chi classes at the Welcome Home Montrose Warrior Resource Center for veterans and their families; his goal is to work with combat veterans to help them deal with rage left over from combat deployments.
He is the author of Soldier Heart, an autobiography, which can be found at Amazon.com.
U.S. Navy veteran James Russell moved to the Telluride valley in 1972 after leaving the service and a year in Vietnam. Russell served from 1966 through 1971 and was part of a Swift Boat Task Force for the Navy’s Swift Boat Fleet in Vietnam in 1969.
Russell said he had made plans to go to Montrose this week to see the Wall, a tribute he said to not only those who were lost in the war, but in the years since Vietnam as well.
“It’s very emotional, it symbolizes all the sacrifice that people made. It also reminds me there are a lot of others that made it through, but ended up dead anyway because of Vietnam,” Russell said.
Russell, a Lt. JG with the Navy in Vietnam, served as a Psychological Operations Officer on a swift boat whose missions were to patrol the rivers. Following several personnel rotations, Russell served for a time with Secretary of State John Kerry, who was formerly a Massachusetts Senator and was the Democratic nominee for president in 2004.
“There were a couple of times where I should have ended up on the Wall,” Russell said, describing close calls where he said people would “take a shot” at him.
Russell said America lost a lot of veterans at home in the years following the war due to “emotional stress” and some ended up committing suicide, including four friends in Telluride in the 1970s.
“They were very good veterans, very well decorated but couldn’t make it; unfortunately that’s still going on today,” Russell said.
HAWAII TO VIETNAM
Harold “Jim” Nerlin of Telluride remembers sailing to Vietnam right around the time President Lyndon Johnson was building up forces there in 1964.
Nerlin, just drafted into the U.S. Army, was stationed in the Headquarters Division of the 25th Infantry when its command changed from Hawaii to Cu Chi Vietnam.
He remembers the stark difference soldiers experienced returning from Vietnam as opposed to soldiers returning home from Iraq or Afghanistan today, greeted by parades, speeches, honor flights and flag waving crowds.
“You didn’t wear your uniform, you went home and never talked about it to anybody, kind of “well, welcome back, let’s get on with life,” Nerlin said.
Nerlin said the Vietnam Wall serves as a historic landmark for the United States.
“It symbolizes the pain and suffering we all went through when we were over there,” Nerlin said.
“I believe it also symbolizes the lives lost in basically an unwinnable war,”
TOP SECRET CLEARANCE
Ridgway resident Lynne Marschke was serving at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippine Islands when the first POWs from Vietnam began trickling in.
“It was their first point of reentry into the “free world,” Marschke remembers.
Marschke was in the U.S. Air Force from January 1970 through November 1973 and served in Teletype Communications, including top secret communications at Clark Air Force Base “when computers where the size of three garages.”
Given Top Secret clearance, Marschke worked on documentation of service personnel and specific “activities” going on in the combat thearter.
Marchke said “on a personal level,” she does not know any names on the Wall, but has known people to make trips to D.C. to see the memorial.
“The traveling Wall is something to be commended,” she said. “It does allow people to have that opportunity to see something that is of such importance.”
Wednesday, July 3
8 a.m. motorcycle escort from Hampton Inn to
Thursday, July 4
Opening Ceremony; 11:30 a.m.; Community Picnic at Cerise Park, 12:30 p.m.
Sunday, July 7
Closing ceremony, 9 p.m., with candlelight vigil
Monday, July 8
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