Roger Newall, chairman of Albuquerque’s Veterans Memorial Review Committee, knew why I was calling.
Which is to say, he had fielded a few calls besides mine about the dust-up over a sculpture proposed for the New Mexico Veterans’ Memorial Park, near Louisiana and Gibson SE.
The sculpture, designed and desired by Corrales sculptor and Air Force veteran Jennifer Northup, was meant to honor female handlers of military working dogs. More than that, it would be the first monument in the park to feature the image of a female veteran.
The proposal had hit a roadblock, and Newall was the man behind it.
“All the information is incorrect,” he said, referring to a TV news story and an online petition about the memorial in which Newall came off as something of a sexist.
So what was correct?
- That Northup’s sculpture consists of a bronze relief depicting a female soldier and her dog. Facing the relief are life-size bronze statues of a woman in civilian clothing and her dog. The piece’s title: “They Came Home.”
- That Northup proposed the sculpture to the review committee Feb. 18 and that Newall suggested she do more research and return to the committee at a later date. The three-person citizen review committee is established by city ordinance and includes one member each from the Mayor’s Office, the city art board and the park itself.
- That in the 25-acre park, which opened in 1995, not one memorial bears the image of a female veteran, save for an array of photographs of female vets displayed in the women’s bathroom.
That is what inspired Northup to propose the statue.
“It just kept nagging at me,” said Northup, an Air Force aircraft electrician at Kirtland Air Force Base from 1980 to 1984. “I don’t get worked up easily, but this kept nagging at me.”
So Northup got busy.
She decided to feature a female handler of a military working dog as a way to honor all female veterans and all K-9 handlers, including her former Kirtland roommate, Sue Rowe Braun, likely one of the first female K-9 handlers at Kirtland.
Northup estimates that $90,000 would have to be raised to pay for the memorial. That includes a substantial cut in pay for her work.
But here is where the stories diverge.
Northup recalls that Newall almost immediately dismissed her proposal, saying it was not appropriate because there were no female dog handlers in the military.
(There are, but far more men than women are handlers.)
She said he told her to either add a male figure to her memorial or change the occupation of the female soldier to a nurse, medic or clerk.
Judy Quintana, president of Women Veterans of New Mexico, said she received a similar comment from Newall when she called him after hearing about Northup’s experience.
“He had told me it needed to have a male in it,” Quintana said. “That’s what didn’t make sense to me. None of the other monuments have that as a requirement to be there.”
But Newall insists he never said anything of the kind and referred to the official minutes of the meeting as proof.
“What I did say is that we have two other pending proposals (involving female veterans) and that she (Northup) should talk to those two groups to see if there is a way to combine them,” said Newall, a Vietnam veteran who also works for the Mayor’s Office as liaison to veterans.
One of those proposals is from the Tribute to Women in the Military group. That memorial, in the works for two years, has already been approved by Newall’s committee and is expected to be installed late this year, so it’s long past the time for collaboration or revisions, said Sally Cox, treasurer for the group’s memorial committee.
But the Tribute memorial will not include the face or image of a female veteran. Rather, Cox described it as a large stone embedded with the group’s logo and the crests of the five branches of the military.
The other proposal mentioned by Newall is from Quintana’s group, but that is still in the concept phase and nothing has been submitted, Quintana said. The group is supporting Northup’s proposal, she said.
“We’re helping her get her concept pushed forward,” Quintana said, adding that the group is also posting on its website Northup’s video about the memorial as well as a petition asking that Newall reconsider the memorial without modification or the addition of a male presence.
Newall noted the committee has already approved a proposal for a memorial dedicated to veterans of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.
How does this all happen?
Women make up 20 percent of today’s military; nearly 2 million women are U.S. military veterans. And yet for nearly 10 years in this Albuquerque park, the only representation of their service, the only images of their faces, are relegated to a few photos near the toilets.
Whether a dog handler is the right fit for the park might be debatable, but what isn’t is Northup’s determination to bring the image, not just the insignia, of a female vet to a place of honor at the park.
“It’s an honor we deserve,” she said.
The Veterans Memorial Review Committee meets again March 18. Northup is planning to be there.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.