Lance Cpl. Andrew Coca was a quiet man who was close to his parents and two older sisters when he left for Vietnam. Six months before his 22nd birthday, his family was devastated when he was killed by friendly fire.
Spc. Leroy Frank Valdez was planning his own wedding when he was killed by what the Army lists as “other explosive device.” He had been in Vietnam for three months.
Pfc. Johnny Lawrence Baca Jr. had been the star of his high school basketball team before his deployment. He was killed by a mortar.
In all, 399 men as young as 18 left New Mexico as soldiers and never came home. All of them, however, are memorialized on the Vietnam Veterans of New Mexico Memorial Wall in the New Mexican Veterans Memorial Museum.
Each fallen veteran has a photograph, and a placard on the wall in remembrance of his service and sacrifice, said Christopher Timm, board member of the center and an Army veteran. Even though the wall only opened late last year, it has become important to many New Mexicans, he said.
“There’s always a group of people coming through (to see the wall),” he said. “Family and friends, people who knew the veterans on the wall. Others just because they heard about it and they come see. And when they come, they’re very appreciative,”
Spc. Robert Montoya was sent to Vietnam at 19 and came home one year later. Valdez, Baca and Coca had been friends of his before Vietnam, he said. Over there, he said, it wasn’t uncommon to see soldiers who hailed from New Mexico.
“I walked into the mail room one day, and as I’m walking in, this other guy’s walking out, and he says, ‘Hey Chubs!’ I look over and it’s this guy we called Mousey. And he says, ‘Have you seen Mike?’”
Mousey, Mike and Montoya grew up together in Taos and would see each other every day while they were in Vietnam, he said.
The wall had been in the works since 2009, when two veterans began collecting photographs of New Mexicans who died in Vietnam, Timm said.
It was when the Albuquerque Journal wrote an article about the project that the Memorial got involved, said Mary Cox, the Memorial’s museum curator.
Cox said she contacted the veterans so she could get a copy of the photos they were collecting for the center. Instead, she said, the Memorial ended up with the whole collection.
“As curator, I knew that having the pictures would be an exhibit that would create a lot of interest among the veterans and their families,” she said.
The museum has always displayed names of Vietnam veterans, but the addition of photographs on the current wall has turned it into a special tribute, Cox said.
“Having pictures to go with the names is something of interest to those families and friends from New Mexico. It is very emotional to see the faces of our fellow brothers and how young some of them were,” she said.
The Vietnam Veterans of New Mexico Memorial Wall will be on display at the memorial’s museum until at least May, but after that, the memorial hopes to find a larger space for the tribute, Timm said.
“It’s definitely going to be in place where it is through next Memorial Day. We are working on a better location. We’d like to have more room for some other memorabilia we have from servicemen and from all wars,” he said.
Vietnam Veterans of New Mexico Memorial Wall
1100 Louisiana Blvd. SE
9 a.m. until 4 p.m. daily