Lake Havasu City has long been dubbed by its leaders and residents as “the most patriotic city in America.”
That’s due partly because of the large amount of veterans that now call Havasu home and the numerous organizations and groups that are designed to support and celebrate those who have served.
One of those groups is Vietnam Veterans of America. Sisto Sandoval, a Vietnam veteran himself, leads Havasu’s chapter #975 as first vice president.
When Sandoval sees veterans gathered at events like the ceremony to be held at Wheeler Park today after the parade, he doesn’t see “a bunch of old men and wheelchairs,” like he said others may see.
“I see young guys. I picture them doing what they were enlisted at such an early age to do,” he said.
Two of those young guys were Havasu’s own. The city’s history is entwined with the mounting conflict that resulted in the death of more than 58,000 Americans.
When Havasu was officially formed as a taxing district in 1964 by Mohave County, America’s presence in Vietnam was steadily growing, with more than 20,000 military personnel stationed there. By the time Havasu was getting its first school, church and medical offices the following year, the deployment of more than 3,000 U.S. Marines launched the start of the war.
Sandoval, like most veterans, still carries the scars with him. It took him years to talk about what happened during his time in service, but finally retelling his experiences to his daughter’s history class initiated his healing process.
What some may call their inner demons, Sandoval refers to as his dragon. To cope with the nightmares and sudden floods of memories, he creates poetry.
“Sometimes when I wake up in the middle of the night from a nightmare, I’ll come to my desk and just write,” he said. “After I get it all out, I make it into poems.”
He’s read these poems at ceremonies and with other veterans, and there are tears every time, he said.
But talking about the war and his time serving the country is vital to truly move forward, he said. Being involved in various veteran groups, like VVA, VFW and American Legion, has facilitated that healing for him and others. He now has many school presentations under his belt, and realized how little the kids of today truly understand about the war and military.
He recounted one experience with a student who asked what “pow mia” meant, pronouncing it like a phrase.
“I was confused, and thought, ‘What is he talking about?’” Sandoval remembered. It was after the student pointed to his patches that he realized he was referencing the acronym for Prisoner of War, Missing In Action.
Understanding Havasu’s history in parallel with the Vietnam War puts into perspective the reality of the time. The early 70s were filled with enthusiasm for Havasu’s future, while the nation was left to pick up the pieces of a country and people ravaged by violence.