In the rugged wilderness of the majestic Rio Grande National Forest in the Colorado Rockies, one might expect to see many breath-taking things, perhaps happening upon an elk or moose, or enjoying fishing in the numerous lakes and streams which dot the area.
If you’re lucky, though, you might also stumble upon something less expected, something that perhaps would be more at home in a city park or a large metropolitan area.
It’s a war memorial. But not just any war memorial—a secret war memorial constructed to honor the forgotten soldiers of the Vietnam War.
The memorial was the idea of retired Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Allen Beckley. Beckley had no real connection with Colorado, but he had a property there. He also had a dream to create something unique and special as a tribute from American soldiers to the forgotten foreign soldiers that had fought alongside them in the Vietnam war.
Beckley didn’t want it to be a mass tourist attraction, so he decided to erect the memorial in the last place on Earth that anyone would expect to find it—he wanted it to be a secret that would only be shared by veterans, and he didn’t want anyone to know he’d built it.
In 1990, Beckley, a Vietnam war veteran himself, and a proud Texan, visited Rocky Ford, Colorado, and shared his vision with Mike Donelson who is the owner of the Ark Valley Memorial, a stone-cutting business.
“He had in mind it was going to be done,” said Donelson. “You could tell this wasn’t just something he’d just thought about and thought it might be nice to do someday.”
Beckley had decided he would build what would become the SoldierStone memorial to honor “unremembered friends from our Indochina experience.”
The main memorial is a rectangular tower of granite, each side etched with quotes and words, such as “Laos,” “Cambodia,” “Courage,” and “Sacrifice.” Surrounding the tower is a low stone wall, and scattered around that, up to 50 yards away, are small flat slabs of granite engraved with quotes in multiple languages, including Vietnamese, French, Thai, and Arabic.
Donelson sandblasted each one by hand, charging only for the materials, not his time and labor. It took nearly five years to build, and almost didn’t happen because at first he couldn’t get permission to site the memorial on his chosen spot near the Colorado Trail in the National Forest.
In 1995, Beckley found out he had cancer, and was only able to finish his memorial after the U.S. Forest Service caught wind of his failing health and decided to give him a hand.
Beckley’s promise that there would be no publicity about the site helped to calm the U.S. Forest Service’s fears that hundreds of visitors would damage the fragile area.
And he was true to his word.
Up until recently, the memorial, erected in July of 1995, has been a best-kept secret of the Rockies, and very few people actually knew about it. There are no signs, it’s not on any maps, nor are there any published directions on how to get to the monument. Only by talking with locals and people who work for the U.S. Forest Service in the area, can one find out how to arrive at this heartfelt tribute to the forgotten soldiers of the Vietnam war.
Today the memorial stands proud and has been visited by hundreds of people who come from far and wide to quietly stand in its presence and reflect on the pain and suffering caused by the war. Something about its remoteness adds to the poignancy of the place, and many a visitor leaves with a tear in their eye.
This monument serves as a respectful tribute to the fallen heroes but also to those who survived to humbly reflect on what was lost or what might have been.
Now with the rise of social media, more and more people are starting to find out about it. And Soldierstone seems to have taken on a broader meaning than the one first envisioned by Beckley.
“It’s a place for solace. It’s a place for people to be able to spend some time at the memorial thinking about some of the lost loved ones—people they were maybe at Vietnam with, or any of the other wars we’ve been in,” said Rio Grande Ranger District spokesman Mike Blakeman to Hidden Colorado.
“There were lots of heartaches and suffering,” Vietnam veteran David Wendle told USA Today. “[It’s important] that people don’t forget what the cost of freedom is.”