Vietnam vets still have complaints

By Alastair Lee Bitsoi
Navajo Times

FRUITLAND, N.M., April 4, 2013

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(Times photo – Donovan Quintero)

TOP: Leading the Vietnam Honor Walk group on Friday afternoon are, from left to right are, U.S. Army veteran Robin Wood, U.S. Army veteran Sgt. Anderson Jim, and Marine Corps veteran Jimmie Curley.

SECOND FROM TOP: An onlooker watches a small parade of walkers along the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Highway Friday.

THIRD FROM TOP: U.S. Army veteran Robin Lee Wood, from Thoreau, N.M., listens to speakers during an honor walk along the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Highway near Farmington.

A lthough he didn't serve during the Vietnam War, Army Sgt. Robin Wood trekked 117 miles on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Highway last week to honor all veterans, particularly those who died in the jungles of Vietnam and those who didn't receive a proper "Welcome home" after the controversial war.

March 29 marked the 40-year anniversary of when U.S. Armed Forces departed the 20-year Vietnam War (1955-1975) in 1973 between Communist North Vietnam and the democratic South Vietnam, which the U.S. supported. Over the course of the war, between 800,000 and 3.1 million Vietnam veterans and civilians were killed - some of them by the use of chemicals, napalm and Agent Orange.

Thousands of those casualties included Cambodians, Laotians and U.S. service members. The war ended when North Vietnam, also known as the Vietnam People's Army, captured Saigon from South Vietnam in April 1975.

Three of Wood's relatives were among the 226 American Indian/Alaskan Native U.S. military personnel killed in the war, according to the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. In total, 58,220 U.S. military personnel were killed in the war.

"I walked for all veterans who fought in the war," Wood said, while enjoying a steak lunch with Vietnam Veteran Jimmy Curley of Two Grey Hills, N.M.

The pair were among a slew of military personnel from World War II, Vietnam, Desert Storm and modern desert wars like Iraq and Afghanistan that came out Saturday afternoon to support their Vietnam Veteran comrades at a "Welcome Home" celebration, honor walk and bike run, held at Walter Collins Gymnasium in Fruitland.

Wood started the 117-mile trek along the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Highway, also known as N.M. State Highway 371, on March 25. He, along with several other veterans and their families, made stops at Lake Valley, N.M., and T'iistsoh Sikaad, N.M. and the All Saints Chapel in Farmington, before descending upon Fruitland.

Curley joined Wood on the honor walk at the junction of Navajo Route 5 and N.M. 371 and walked the 30 miles to Fruitland.

Like Wood, Curley had two close relatives - the late Albert Curley and the late Leonard Hixon - killed in the Vietnam War.

"I walk because I walk for my comrades who didn't come back," said Curley, who enlisted in the war in 1967, while attending college at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kans. "They're my heroes!"

Prior to their lunch, the pair listened to Mike Bekis, organizer for the honor walk, and Vietnam War Veterans Jon Barrie, Jackson Gibson and Francis Mitchell talk about how they were treated by the American public when they returned from the war.

"Just think these guys didn't ask to go to Vietnam," Bekis said while asking fellow Vietnam veterans and the three Gold Star Mothers in attendance to stand up to be recognized. "The welcome home they got was filled with protestors, rotten eggs, vegetables and fruits."

"That's the welcome home these boys got," added Bekis, who began organizing a walk to honor and remember Vietnam veterans, like his brother Richard Bekis, who upon their return didn't receive a hospitable welcome.

Barrie, a Vietnam Air Force Veteran, went on to say he wasn't happy with how his comrades are treated by the U.S. government for their service in the Vietnam War.

"I'm not happy with the United States government looking after us and they don't," said Barrie, who also chairs the Constitution Party of New Mexico. "It's time we do something about it. I'm angry!"

Barrie said he didn't understand how U.S President Barack Obama and Congress spend millions of dollars in the Middle East when veterans like him and Curley, for example, can't get medical care between Gallup and Farmington.

"That's the service we get for the service we gave," he said. "This is our land, this our country and we outnumber the evil that takes this away from us. We can fight back and the Constitution Party is one of the tools to do that with."

Barrie ran as an independent candidate for the U.S. Senate during the 2012 Election, and received only four percent of total New Mexican votes.

For Vietnam Veteran Orson Nez, who organized the bike run, which attracted about 100 riders and followed the rout of Vietnam Veterans Memorial Highway, the "Welcome Home" is equivalent to therapy.

Nez recalled how most, if not all, Vietnam Veterans were dubbed "baby killers," and "murderers."

"We weren't very popular," he said. "We won every battle but didn't win the war."

According to Nez, as a result of their poor reception by the American public during that time when the Civil Rights Movement was rampant, Vietnam veterans are generally the ones who make sure their comrades fighting in the present desert wars in the Middle East receive a hospital greeting.

"We say, as bikers, we don't want our children to be treated the way we've been treated," he said.

On top of recognizing the Vietnam veterans on Saturday, it was also a forum for federal, state and tribal leaders to hear veterans' concerns and issues like health care and housing.

Bekis and Nez said they reached out to those leaders, only to be disappointed yet again with the lack of support.

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich's legislative liaison, Jim Dumont, was the only representative present on Saturday.

"By law, we have these incentives we fight for and earned it," Nez said. "Now, we got to fight the government for it. That's the purpose of this run."

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