Monument leaves its mark

Courtesy photo: A unique new museum designed by Navajo architect David Sloan —shaped like a hogan and a tepee — and an interpretive trail, provide information about the history of Fort Sumner and Bosque Redondo Indian Reservation, according to the New Mexico State Monuments website.

By Airman 1st Class Jette Carr: 27th SOW Public Affairs

I arrived in October 2009 at Cannon Air Force Base. As a natural explorer, my first few months in New Mexico were spent visiting Albuquerque, Roswell, Ruidoso, Alamogordo and other fascinating places. I saw the city, beautiful mountains, rolling white hills of sand, glorified aliens and met many great people in the process.

Though all of these places were incredible, one in particular made a big impression on me. This was the Bosque Redondo Memorial at Fort Sumner, which is roughly an hour away from Cannon. It was here that I discovered an amazing aspect of the military that I had never noticed before and learned of a story that I felt should be shared.

The Bosque Redondo Memorial was built as a remembrance to the suffering of the Mescalero Apaches and Navajo people while they were forced to live at the reservation in Fort Sumner during the 1860s. The Navajos came to the reservation on a brutal hike, the Long Walk of the Navajo. A group of approximately 9,000 Navajo people were forced to walk at gunpoint, nearly 450 miles in 18 days, from Arizona to Bosque Redondo in 1864. At least 200 people died during this trek, and even more died while living on the reservation due to a lack of basic necessities such as water, food and firewood.

I did not learn much in the museum itself because it was under construction at the time of my visit, but I can imagine many big changes have been made. The majority of what I learned about the area came from Grace Roybal, one of the caretakers. Roybal is very passionate about her job and can cite a verbal history of Bosque Redondo from back in the 1860s to current day. Through her, I was able to get a clear picture of how important the memorial still is today to many people who, through their ancestors, are involved in the site’s history.

While we were talking, Roybal learned that I was an airman from Cannon. After that she became excited and gestured for me to go outside to the field behind Bosque Redondo. There, she said, was a prayer site that had been dedicated less than a decade before. A prayer stick had been placed in the ground and when people went there to pray, they would leave objects, stones, jewelry, etc. Over time, this had created a good-sized mound. The object she thought I would find interesting was tied to the prayer stick with an old piece of string. It was a military medal, the Purple Heart.

Roybal told the story of a young Navajo man wearing the service dress uniform, who came to visit the Bosque Redondo memorial with his mother. Upon entering the grounds, he asked the caretaker for some string, and then went outside to the prayer site. When the young man came back inside, after nearly an hour, he turned to Roybal and said, “Just to let you know, I left my Purple Heart out there.” He asked for no recognition and wanted the medal to remain outside where he had left it.

Because this man wished to remain anonymous, I could not ask him any of the questions that I had about why he would leave his Purple Heart. So when I went back to work that Monday, I searched for someone from Cannon who had received the same medal to learn more about it. I found Master Sgt. Justin Campanella, 551st Special Operations Squadron, who, though not the man from the prayer site, had received a Purple Heart and could tell me more about its significance.

Campanella received the medal for injuries received during an attack in Saudi Arabia. He explained that his medal was a reminder of a significant event in his life and a reminder of the men he had worked with that were no longer here today.

When I asked why he thought this Purple Heart had been left at the memorial, he said, “The Purple Heart is awarded for injuries received in combat. As I look at the medal as a memorial to those who lost their lives that night, to leave the medal at the memorial site makes sense to me. The Navajo Long Walk is similar to the Trail of Tears, an event that earned its name from the suffering and deaths among those forced to move, with no decorations awarded to those lost along the way.”

Before Campanella said this, I had never thought of the Purple Heart as being anything other than a sign that a military member had been injured in the line of duty. It made sense now, to me, why this Navajo young man would leave his purple heart. It is moments like that, where you can see the good in people, and the respect they award each other, that make you glad to serve.