Writing in “Vietnam Magazine,” my friend Neal Ulevich tells the story of a former combat vet who restored his own sense of honor by honoring his fallen comrades in arms, particularly the long-forgotten soldiers of Southeast Asia.
Stuart Allen Beckley, a retired lieutenant colonel, spent a decade teaching counterinsurgency tactics to the Thai armed forces, as well as serving in Laos and Bangkok. After his retirement, however, he remained bitter and angry at the outcome of the War in Vietnam.
“That I did not die with the last to die is a source of great shame to me,” he wrote later. “My country ‘died’ on that bleak April day in 1975 when the last helicopter lifted off from the American Embassy in Saigon.”
In particular, he was haunted by the published image of a young South Vietnamese Ranger whose wrist was tattooed with the question: “When I die, who will build my tomb?”
Beckley decided that he would build that tomb.
Slowly, his anger became a mission to build a monument called Soldierstone that would be a tribute to every man of arms who fought in Indochina in the three decades from France’s fight to save its colonies in Indochina at the end of World War II to the close of the American War in Vietnam in 1975.
He placed that monument in a remote section of the Continental Divide called Sargent’s Mesa in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. At 10,800 feet above sea level, it’s accessible only after the snow melts in an alpine pasture of the Rio Grande National Park in late spring.
The monument is a 10-foot tall obelisk of stacked blocks inscribed with words like “sacrifice” and “courage.” Surrounding the obelisk are 30 “quotestones,” each with sad insights from soldiers who fought in Indochina.
Its remoteness was deliberate. “I do not want this to become ‘Stu’s project,’ it’s for those tired, spent dusty soldiers that march through my nights,” he wrote to the Forest Service about five months before his death from cancer in 1995.
Ark Valley Memorial Co. at Rocky Ford in eastern Colorado crafted and engraved the granite blocks, which came from a quarry in Georgia. It erected the tower, using a big six-wheel-drive truck with a crane on it. Engraving the stones with quotations in foreign languages was a special problem.
Each of the quotestones weighed about 300 pounds. Mike Donelson, the monument company’s owner, recalled his astonishment as Special Forces soldiers shouldered the granite blocks and carried them to random locations surrounding the obelisk.
The monument cost just under $100,000, and Beckley put up most of the money himself. But he refused to put his name on it. “Soldierstone will be starkly beautiful in its simplicity,” Beckley wrote. “It will stand alone … as did those soldiers in the seasons of death.… Soldierstone makes no political statement … except for the horrific tragedy of war.”
Since its completion two decades ago, Soldierstone has been largely unknown, accessible only by about 15 miles of extremely rough logging roads. But not long ago, a group of bikers happened on it, filmed it, and posted their film on the Internet.
“Stu’s dearest wish was that this site not become a tourist attraction or be publicized in any way but by word of mouth, but he and we didn’t envision social media or YouTube in 1995,” one Forest Service official told Ulevich, who worked with me half a century ago on the University of Wisconsin’s student newspaper, the Daily Cardinal. A photojournalist for The Associated Press, Ulevich was aboard the last chopper out of Saigon and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1977 for his photographs of street violence in Bangkok.