BENSON — While visiting the expansive veterans tribute on display at Benson’s San Pedro Golf Course Friday morning, Retired Army Veteran Steve Breitengross paused before all 112 panels.
Breitengross moved slowly along the 360-foot Vietnam Memorial Wall bearing the 58,318 names of fallen war heroes etched in the long line of black panels.
“This is incredible,” he said. “All of the war commemorations they have on display here are incredible. I can’t believe this is in Benson.”
The five-day American Veterans Traveling Tribute (AVTT) arrived in Benson Wednesday afternoon accompanied by a motorcycle escort of military service organizations. Along with the Vietnam Memorial Wall replica, the tributes included replica panels of multiple conflicts that date back to World War I through the present.
The 212 panels were set up Thursday morning by volunteers and will remain on display until 3 p.m. Sunday, marking the conclusion of “A Heroes’ Welcome: The Cost of Freedom” commemoration organized by Najayyah Many Horses of the Benson Chamber of Commerce with support from the community.
AVTT chose Benson’s commemoration to debut its Afghanistan & Iraq Warrior Tribute, representing the newest addition to the traveling collection.
“I’m very honored that the Afghanistan & Iraq tribute is on display for the first time at our event,” Many Horses said Friday morning. “And I’m pleased with the community’s response. I’ve been getting wonderful support and positive feedback from everyone.”
Benson resident Brian Goeglein was one of several locals visiting the tribute Friday morning.
“I was never in the military, but my brother Charles was in the Navy during the Vietnam war, and my dad, John Goeglein, was an Army infantry soldier in World War II. He served in the South Pacific Theatre and helped liberate the Philippines,” Goeglein said. “So this tribute means a lot to me.”
Vietnam War Veteran Dennis Blessman has been traveling throughout the Western United States with the Vietnam Wall as a volunteer docent for about 11 years.
“I served in the Air Force and was in Vietnam from 1967 to ‘68,” said Blessman, who is from California. “I travel to several of these tributes every year, and have found that smaller communities like Benson usually have the best turnouts for these events.”
While pausing to admire the Vietnam Wall, Sgt. 1st Class Jason Taylor, the Army National Guard recruiter for Cochise County, said, “I used to live in Washington D.C. where I was assigned to the National Guard headquarters. While I was there, I visited the different memorials and monuments and this is a great replica of the Vietnam Memorial. I’m glad to see that they’ve brought all the memorials.”
Taylor said he believes it’s important for young people to come out and see the displays.
“They show what the military has been through to provide us with the freedoms that we all enjoy today,” he said.
Friday evening’s entertainment featured Front Line, a six member jazz combo with the 108th Arizona’s Own Army National Guard Band out of Phoenix. The group delivered a 60-minute energized show that earned rave reviews from the audience, including country singer Andy Hersey, whose performance followed Front Line.
“I think they’re a top-notch, world-class show,” he said. “They’re an amazing group of musicians who put a lot of energy and passion into their music.”
Saturday featured a full lineup of activities, starting with opening ceremonies at 9 a.m., followed by motivational speakers and live music.
Motivational speaker John Arroyo, survivor of the mass shooting at Fort Hood Texas on April 2, 2014, said his purpose in attending the event was to celebrate the lives of all the fallen heroes whose names appear on the panels of each memorial.
“I’m in the presence of amazing people,” he said. “Those brave individuals whose names are on the panels gave up their lives so all of you at this ceremony can live full lives and thrive. I’m here today to celebrate them.”
When presenting Many Horses with an award from the City of Benson for the tireless work she dedicates to the community, Mayor Toney King struggled to maintain his composure.
“You have no idea how much respect and admiration I have for Najayyah,” King said while presenting her with a plaque as he thanked her for “uniting the community, city and chamber of commerce.”
Saturday afternoon’s entertainment included beautifully performed flute music by Najayyah’s husband Danny Many Horses, a Mescalero Apache who was raised in New Mexico.
“I loved the flute music,” said Bisbee resident Robin Haas. “This whole event is fabulous. The displays are deeply moving and they do a wonderful job of explaining the different conflicts. This whole event is very inspirational.”
The afternoon’s entertainment also included Voices of Service, a four-member acapella group that wowed America’s Got Talent judges last year in Season 14. All four members are veteran and active military service members. They are Master Sergeant Caleb Green, retired, Sergeant Ron Henry, Sergeant Major Christal Sanders Rheams and Sergeant First Class Jason L. Hannah.
Just as the group received standing ovations from all four judges and the crowd during their America’s got Talent performances, the Benson crowd was on its feet at the end of their 60-minute show.
“From start to finish, this event is very, very good,” said Lupe Velasco, a Marine Corps Veteran and purple heart recipient who was severely wounded in Vietnam in 1968.
“My friend and I are here from Flagstaff for this tribute, and we both are grateful that Benson is honoring our country’s veterans. It’s very healing.”