SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — You can tell that David Edward Bergfeldt wanted to smile for the color photo snapped in the summer of 1969. He was visiting home in Las Cruces during his second tour of duty in Vietnam. Wearing his dress uniform, he was seated on a couch, his left arm cradling a dog.
Bergfeldt likely had darker things on his mind. He died in action in December of that year, just three days after his 25th birthday.
He is one of roughly 400 New Mexicans who were killed or went missing in action in Vietnam and are being commemorated as part of a Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund project in Washington, D.C.
New Mexico is the first state in the country to have successfully collected photos of all of its service members — 398 — who didn’t survive the Vietnam conflict. The effort was driven by a team of about a half-dozen dedicated volunteers led by Arturo Canales of Santa Fe. Just two weeks ago, the group collected the final image they were seeking, that of Sgt. Bobby Joe Martinez of Fort Wingate, who died in May 1968 at the age of 22.
For several years, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund has pursued a “Faces Never Forgotten” campaign to gather photographs of the 58,286 men and women who gave their lives during the Vietnam War. All will be honored on the memorial fund’s virtual Wall of Faces. The memorial fund is raising money to mount the images in its education center as well.
According to Tim Tetz, director of outreach for the memorial fund, about 32,000 photos have been collected nationwide, leaving about 26,000 more to go. While New Mexico is the first to fulfill its goal, Tetz said Friday that Wyoming was just one photo away from becoming the second state, while other states, including South and North Dakota, aren’t far behind.
For the most part, the young New Mexican men in the photos appear serious, somber and sometimes scared. One Raton youth, apparently sitting in a bunker somewhere in Vietnam, flashes eyes like those of an animal predator. Another New Mexican in his mid-20s sits in the Vietnam jungle, his machine gun within reach of his right hand. He looks like he is about to kill or be killed.
“He looks old,” Canales said, viewing the photo.
A lot of the men in the photos look old, actually. Others, however, are images of pre-military youth, straddling motorcycles with girlfriends, clowning around with neighborhood pals or cuddling childhood dogs. You see young men getting married, attending proms, riding bicycles, graduating from high school.
Canales, a Vietnam veteran himself — he served in the U.S. Navy — figures they all once had hopes and dreams.
Tetz said personal photos of the veterans often have a greater impact on viewers than formal military portraits. “To a lot of people, it may just be another guy in a uniform,” he said. “But if we are able to show the personalities behind them — their wedding photographs, a shot of them holding their baby or playing football — then we can tell the story behind that uniform.”
Tracking down pieces of history
In October 2009, the Vietnam Veterans of America Northern New Mexico Chapter 996 initiated the effort to gather the photos. Canales, along with Art DeVargas, Jerry Martinez, Charles Zobac, Eddie Romero and Henry Urioste, went to work tracking them down.
The task involved collecting casualty reports from various sources, including the LBJ Presidential Library, connecting with statewide veterans’ organizations and placing cold calls to people who live in the same New Mexico town and have the same last name as the deceased.
Canales called them dead phone calls. “They’re really difficult,” he said. “You are talking to family members, friends, loved ones who maybe haven’t talked about the war or their loss for years. And they say to you, ‘Why do you want the photo?’ ”
Most of the time people responded, sending in photos, newspaper clippings, obituaries and personal remembrances of the deceased. For instance, attached to a photo of Melvin Carrillo of Roswell (1949-68) is a Post-it note from a family member noting that Carrillo loved boxing and won a local lightweight championship title. He never made it to the regional boxing competition because he was drafted, the note explains.
A March 6, 1971, news obituary for Army soldier Thomas Toledo of Jemez Pueblo accompanied his photo. The obituary quotes a family member who said of Toledo, “He didn’t want to go to war.”
It also stated that Toledo’s letters home “never spoke of anything bad, he always had something good to say.” Toledo was about 20 when he was killed in action in March 1971.
Most of the photos are of men who died at the age of 18, 19, 20 or 21. A few made it into their mid-20s, and the collection includes two veterans who made it to 40.
The casualty reports are to the point: “gunshot wound to the head,” or “ground casualty . gun or small arms fire.”
A number of the deceased have schools, playgrounds, parks or American Legion posts named after them, Canales said. In Santa Fe, Nava Elementary School is named after Francis Xavier Nava (1946-66). The Marine is one of about 18 Santa Feans included in the photo memorial.
The photo search took an emotional toll on many of the volunteers, Canales said.
As for how he feels now that the task is complete, he said, “I’m done. I finished my tour. I finished my mission.”