Words For Peace: A Letter To The Wall


Katie Aguilera

Back in November, when I started my blog, I had a conversation with Doug Rawlings who is a co-founder of Veterans For Peace, if you haven’t read those posts yet, please do, what he has to say is so powerful and important. In that conversation he told me about a Memorial Day event that took place last year in which Veterans for Peace asked for people to write a letter “to the Wall,” describing how they have been affected by the war in Vietnam and its aftermath.

151 letters and 32 postcards were received and placed at the foot of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall for the public to read. And they did read them. Conversations happened, a critical message was shared with many. Afterward, the National Park Service requested to place some of the letters on display in their archival museum, where those words can continue to be read.

This year, it is time to go even bigger. Veterans For Peace is asking for at least 1500 letters that can be placed at the Wall for Memorial Day 2016. Letters can be emailed to vncom50@gmail.com or they can also be physically mailed directly to Doug Rawlings (address can be found in Doug’s post about the event here)

If the Vietnam War still causes you to reflect deeply about the meaning of that war and its place in your life, then we need you. We need your help. We need your words. Veterans For Peace wants to deliver 1,500 letters to The Wall in Washington, DC this coming Memorial Day as a way of acknowledging the impact of that war on our lives. We need you to write one of these letters.

Doug Rawlings on Vietnam Full Disclosure

I see this event as an excellent opportunity to share a powerful message of peace, of ending war, with people who might not ordinarily pause to think about the devastating effects of war, beyond the lives lost, as they wander through the various war memorials in Washington D.C. on Memorial Day. Those memorials are very moving, but they don’t really portray the destruction of the lives of the survivors, they don’t show the destruction of families, the environmental destruction, the effects that still linger today.  They certainly don’t show the devastation wrought upon other nations of the world. But our letters can.

I was born years after America ended its fighting in Vietnam, but that war has still had its effects on me, not only because my father was drafted and spent a year in Vietnam.  My views on war have been largely shaped by what I learned of this war as a youth.  I believe that war has had far-reaching effects on our society that touch us all, even today.  I’ve written a letter of my own to ‘the Wall,’ and I’m sharing it here, in hopes it might inspire you to write one too.

To The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, And More Importantly, To Those Who Visit It:

I stood before you alone on a warm, sunny August day, and fought to keep my tears to myself. I wished desperately that my father could be there too, but he was 3000 miles away, and we didn’t talk much anymore anyway. I was awed by the simplicity of your portrayal of such heavy sorrow. I was awed by how much sadness you stirred in me. There are no names on that wall that I recognize.  I didn’t lose a loved one to this war, my father came home physically intact from his year in Vietnam. If he hadn’t, if his name were inscribed on your surface, I would not have been alive to stand before you, to touch your smooth granite and read the names of people I didn’t know, people I could never know.

My emotion that day was partly a reflection of my father’s feelings about you. Even though he never had the opportunity to visit you, it meant a lot to him knowing you had been built to honor those who died in the war he too had served in. The only time we ever talked about his service in Vietnam was when he shed a tear over an essay I wrote about you in sixth grade. It was such a powerful moment, and it felt a bit as though I stood before you in his honor.

But my feeling as I touched your cold, shiny surface that day was also a sadness of loss. My understanding of this war, and all wars, had come a long way since I wrote that essay in sixth grade. I feel the things that are lost to war very strongly. They are a weight on our society much greater than that of your granite slabs.

The loss of so many American lives is beyond tragic. But there are so many sad things about this war, so many more things than the loss you represent. An estimated 1,313,000 deaths occurred as a result of war in North and South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia just in the years between 1965 and 1974, and only a little over 58,000 of those are inscribed on your surface. At least 587,000 of those were civilians. Men, women, children. Every single one is a tragedy.

And people continued to die after 1975, they are still dying as a result of this war. We left behind a legacy of un-exploded ordinance, waiting for innocent people to stumble upon them. We left behind a legacy of people poisoned by Agent Orange. We left behind a legacy of refugees and instability in many of these countries resulting in more death, more destruction. Those names are not on your surface.

And those who came home to America? They were left alone to face what they had done, what they had seen, what they had experienced, what they had suffered. How many, unable to deal with their horrors, took their own lives? How many also suffered from the toxic effects of Agent Orange? Where are their names on your surface?

Your moving simplicity leaves out so much, as if to excuse our ignorance in this nation of the devastating effects our wars have on generations of Americans, and on generations of people around the world, and on the world itself. As if war, and soldiers dying, is as clean as your shiny wall and the simple white crosses of Arlington Cemetery.

I wish the American people would see a reflection of all that loss in your surface, so we might all rise up together and bring an end to the wars and devastation our nation is waging around the globe. I wish we would honor the many who have died for the few who profit from war by refusing to fight. I wish you said that on your surface, especially to the young men and women thinking of enlisting who happen to pass you by.

Katie Aguilera

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial: An Essay From Sixth Grade


A Note From The Author:  I wrote this essay in the sixth grade.  I mentioned this essay in my second blog post I published here at Seeking Redress (it was the first that I actually wrote, it was what drove me to start this site), and will be mentioning it again in another post I’m publishing today discussing an important Memorial Day event.  Since this essay played such a role in one of my most vivid memories of my father, and it demonstrates my changing understanding of war and how we memorialize it, I thought I’d just go ahead and share it.  Please forgive the naivete, I was pretty young and only beginning my long journey into researching that painful chapter in history.

The Remembrance of a Nightmare

The Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial started as just a dream for Jan C. Scruggs but it became a reality just the same.  Scruggs asked Senator John W. Warner for $5,000.00 to start building the memorial.  Senator Warner gave the requested $5,000.00 and earned another $50,000.00 within weeks.  So the soon-to-be-great memorial was built.

On the paneled sides of the wall are printed about 58,000 names of the soldiers who died in the Vietnam War or who remain missing, in the order that the clutches of war finally tore the life out of them.  The people who remain missing are marked by a simple, but important, cross that is circled if the person is found.  1300 of the names are those of missing soldiers.

This memorial has touched the lives of many people across America.  They see a familiar name that triggers their memory and tears flood from their eyes.  It comes as no surprise that the memorial has become one of the most visited memorials in Washington.

A book will be published called To Heal A Nation by Jan Scruggs and Joel L. Swerdlow.  [This book was already published when I wrote this essay, and can be found on Amazon.]  It will, like the memorial, list all the names of these great men.

The people love the memorial and will probably love the book as well.  It is only obvious by the look of gratitude on the people’s faces that they greatly appreciate America’s respect for the men who gave the ultimate sacrifice for their country they loved.  Many people have read the names of the veterans and have relived the nightmare of Vietnam in 1961-1971.  Many memories have been spurred by this long granite wall called The Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial.

The End

Another Curious Case of Arson on Federal Land

UPDATE: 3/6/2017: this post is receiving some new traffic due to an episode of the Lifetime Movie Network show 24 to Life which aired Wednesday, March 1st, 2017, and again on March 5th, 2017, on A&E.  This episode chronicles Ben Cunha’s final 24 hours before reporting to federal prison.  I want to direct any new readers to the two, much more detailed stories I have written about Ben Cunha’s story after talking with Cunha and others involved.  Those can be found here and here.  Both articles clear up much of what I had previously questioned in this article.


On February 23rd, 2016, Benjamin Cunha was sentenced to five years in prison, and fined $246,862.00, on a single count of arson.  At first glance, this doesn’t seem all that odd.  After all, we learned from the Hammonds’ case that violating 18 U.S.C. 844(f)(1) means a mandatory minimum sentence of 5 years, and the fact is, Cunha had admitted to starting at least 30 fires over a two year period.  Considering the number of fires he supposedly started, five years certainly doesn’t seem excessive, and Cunha is undoubtedly lucky his fires didn’t injure anyone or cause greater damage.  (His fellow El Dorado County arsonist responsible for the devastating King Fire in September 2014, Wayne Allen Huntsman, was just sentenced to 20 years, and fined $60 million, on a single count.)

However, Cunha’s case is much more interesting than that simple five-year sentence for a single count of arson implies.  That one count is a result of only one of the fires Cunha admitted to starting, a fire called the Mine Fire that burned approximately 80 acres, at least some of which was federal land.  That fire occurred in 2007, and the other fires he admitted to igniting all occurred between August 2005 and September 2007.

Cunha, who had worked as a volunteer and wildland firefighter, was arrested in September 2007 and charged with three felony arson charges.  A plea agreement was reached in the case, described here to include:

As part of his plea agreement, he admitted to the details of the 30 fires he set. He had disclosed to local law enforcement that because of his firefighter experience, he was able to build a time delay device to create “fires big enough that significant fire-fighting resources would be required to extinguish the fires.”

He is said to have started the fires in order to earn extra money fighting them, and also to impress his fellow fire-fighters, presumably to help secure his position within the ranks.

In 2008, according to 2016 court documents, Cunha was “sentenced to 365 days in jail, which he was allowed to serve in a program that allowed him to leave the jail each day for work and return for sleep.  Cunha was also sentenced to 72 months of probation.”  Terms of his probation included wearing a GPS monitor during the fire season.  This probation period concluded in 2012.

Benjamin Cunha was arrested and charged, he reached a plea deal and admitted to setting the fires, he served his jail time and his probation, and yet, he was charged again in 2013 for the Mine Fire.  Initially, he was charged with two counts, for the Mine Fire and Palmer fire, both of which burned onto federal land, but due to another plea deal, the second count was dropped.  What brought the second round of charges?  Well, apparently more fires, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and Explosives.

The summer following the completion of Cunha’s probation, in July and August of 2013, two new fires were being investigated for suspected arson.  Again according to the court documents linked above, “Law enforcement determined that at least one of the fires was started using a time-delay incendiary device similar to the time-delay incendiary devices Cunha had admitted to using in the 2007-2008 series of El Dorado/Amador county fires.  Cunha was a primary suspect in the 2013 fires.”

The investigation into the 2013 fires was halted, and Cunha was arrested and charged with the two 2007 fires that burned onto federal land.  This time he faced federal charges, and, at the very least, the resulting mandatory minimum sentence of five years.  The prosecutors pushed for a longer sentence in his case, arguing that the decision to shorten the sentence in his plea deal included the provision that Cunha would provide assistance to the government.  Again from the court documents:

The plea agreement contains the possibility that the government would recommend 84 months [versus the 90 months sought] if Cunha provided substantial assistance to the government.  The government, in its discretion, has determined that Cunha has not provided substantial assistance…

In 2008, Cunha cooperated with authorities to reach a plea deal in that he admitted to starting the fires and gave details of the time-delay incendiary device he designed and used.  What more information could he provide in the second case that would be considered “substantial assistance?”

In the end, Cunha was sentenced to only five years, and he wasn’t charged for the 2013 fires as part of the plea deal reached in the federal case.  Considering that the investigation into the 2013 fires was dropped and Cunha was apparently considered the only suspect, the feds must have had significant enough proof to put pressure on him.  So why not charge him with those fires too, in order to secure that longer sentence?

As stated in the 2016 court document, the federal government felt “the need to protect the community, the need to promote respect for the law, and the need to provide just punishment.”  But only after the two 2013 fires Cunha wasn’t charged for?  Why not in 2008, when he started at least 30 fires, including the two that burned onto federal land that he was sentenced for in 2016?

In 2008, he was charged only by the state and sentenced to 365 days and probation instead of facing federal charges and the mandatory minimum of five years.  In the prosecution’s push for a longer sentence in 2016, it is stated that “it defies common sense that a serial arsonist, who voluntarily admitted to setting at least 30 fires, would score at criminal history zero and receive the same mandatory minimum sentence as a first-time offender.”  Could it be that the feds did not stand to gain anything from Cunha’s case in 2008 and therefore did not feel the need to protect the community from an admitted serial arsonist at that time?

What is even more curious is that, in spite of the fact that Cunha was told in 2008 that he would be sent to prison if he violated his probation, he somehow appears to have done so without any consequence at all.  According to this article, and this one, Benjamin Cunha was arrested and charged with felony counts while on probation.  The second article, from California Fire News, has this to say:

Former CAL FIRE firefighter now troubled man-child Benjamin Cunha, who has volunteered for several fire departments in El Dorado County and hails from a long line of career firefighters, and who was convicted of arson earlier this year has been re-arrested on suspicion of arranging a deal to sell firearms.

He had received a six-year suspended sentence on the arson charge and was told he would go to prison if he violated rules of his probation.

The first article claims that officials from the sheriff’s department stated that Cunha was charged with four felony counts as a result of this stolen firearms deal.  Bail was set at $10 million.  These charges included being a felon in possession of a firearm and facilitating the sale of stolen weapons; both clear violations of his probation.  This occurred in December 2008, not so very long after Cunha would have been released after his 365 days in (bedtime only) prison.  Yet, this seemingly rather huge violation of his probation does not appear to land him back in prison, nor does it appear to be mentioned in 2013 and his subsequent case with the federal charges, even as the federal prosecutors pushed for a longer sentence by arguing that Cunha was a danger to the community.  How can that be?

Benjamin Cunha’s case, like so many others, leaves me with many questions about the way the federal government pursues criminals, and also how it criminalizes people.  Just as the Hammonds’ arson case had so much more to the story, I wonder what else might be involved in Cunha’s story.  A curious case indeed.