By Steve Ramirez
Las Cruces Sun News
About 9:10 a.m. March 1 a loud cheer went up from a group of several dozen veterans, many who served during the Vietnam War. They were there to see the Huey erected above the Vietnam War Memorial Monument, in the southwest corner of the park. For a year they, and others, have waited for the Huey to become the monument’s crowning touch. It’s been nine years since the idea to build a local monument to honor Vietnam veterans was conceived.
“It was a fitting moment,” said Jim Harbison, chairman of the memorial committee, and a highly decorated Army veteran of Vietnam.
A year ago, when the monument was dedicated, committee members promised a Huey helicopter, an iconic symbol of U.S. involvement during the Vietnam War, would become a key focal point of the monument. Since then, they were able to obtain and restore a vintage Huey from White Sands Missile Range. Shortly after dawn Tuesday, crews with Budagher Crane Service, of Las Cruces, arrived at Veterans Park to hoist the helicopter and mount it atop a steel post.
“A lot of the thanks and praise has to go to Budagher for donating their crews, their time and their service to make this happen,” Harbison said. “We’re mighty grateful to them.”
In April of 2014 an Aviation Restructure Initiative was put into effect in every Army installation. The initiative called for the replacement of UH-1 Hueys and UH-72 Lakotas with the larger UH-60 Blackhawks. WSMR is scheduled to receive six Blackhawks and has already received two. The Lakotas were transferred to Fort Rucker, Alabama, as training platforms and the Hueys were scheduled to be retired from the Army in its entirety.
“It was just something that worked out for everybody,” said a WSMR representative.
It took several hours to weld and completely secure the Huey to its base at the monument. As some veterans left to get on with the tasks of the day, other veterans and interested residents showed up at the park to admire the work being done — and the full-scale Huey.
“It’s a beautiful sight,” said Loretta Davis, as tears began to fill in her eyes. “I remember so much, so many things about Vietnam. Today, I’m here thinking about my Uncle John, who went over there but never came back. I’m thinking, too, about all of young men I went to high school with who fought over there. A lot of them came home, (but) some of them didn’t.”
Matt Walker was among Las Crucens driving past Veterans Park, when they saw the large helicopter, and its long blades, appear to be flying into the park.
“I saw it from the street, and at first wondered if something wasn’t going on at the park,” Walker said. “I thought maybe somebody had been in some kind of accident and had to be airlifted. It wasn’t until I stopped and got a closer look that I realized it was part of this monument. It’s pretty eye catching. It’s pretty dramatic, and people are probably going to be impressed by it.”
Walker was among numerous passersby who stopped at Veterans Park, got out of their vehicles and took out their cellphones to take photos of the helicopter.
“People are definitely going to be impressed,” said Tito Moreno, who served in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969. “Those things (Hueys) were our lifeline. You always got a little excited, a little anxious when you saw one of them because you knew seeing them was a good thing.”
A public rededication ceremony of the Vietnam War Memorial Monument, this one with the Huey, will be at 10 a.m. March 26 at Veterans Park.
Sun-News photojournalist Jett Loe and WSMR Staff Writer Adriana Salas de Santiago contributed to this story.