11/13/2015 4:01PM

Hovdey: Veteran used horses, black marble to heal


If you didn’t know what it was, you could drive past the North County Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Pacific Coast Highway at the north end of the town of Carlsbad and never give it a second glance. After all, from the road, it looks like nothing more than a black marble representation of the map of California.

Upon closer inspection, though, the marker is found to be topped with the engraved admonition “Never Forget,” and flowing beneath those words are 127 names taking up both sides of the marble slab – 127 names that also appear on the wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.

At this point, the reader might ask, “What has this got to do with the daily double at River Downs?” Well, nothing, other than that it was a nice Veterans Day afternoon, there was no racing at Del Mar, and this reporter was invited to attend by the man who was the driving force behind the creation of the memorial in the first place.

Walter “Jack” Frazier is a U.S. Navy veteran who spent the better part of four years in Vietnam in the late 1960s. His unit’s designation was “search and rescue,” which was every bit as grim as it sounds. He is a retired high school history teacher now and has been known to sing a few classic tunes at local watering holes, free of charge.

Frazier is also a former jockey, an exercise rider to the stars, a trainer, an owner, and a breeder of Thoroughbreds, some of whom have been known to win a race now and then. He had his greatest success riding Quarter Horses, but it was the Thoroughbreds he climbed aboard for D. Wayne Lukas back in the 1980s who have left him with stories to tell his grandchildren.

“Winning Colors, Open Mind, Dynaformer …,” Frazier said. “You can’t believe the feeling to be in contact with horses like that. And they just kept coming.”

On this particular afternoon, Frazier was telling a different tale as he stood next to the memorial. It was another chance to trace the history of the black marble and its 127 names, and to share his own journey from Vietnam to that moment in 2009 when the memorial was unveiled.

“In 2003, when I was still teaching, I got a grant to attend a conference in Washington on how to teach the Vietnam War,” Frazier said. “While I was there, I visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial for the first time. I made that walk along the wall as it tapers below ground level, looking at those 59,000 names, and it was magnificent. But I didn’t feel any real emotion.”

Apparently, his reaction was not unusual, especially for someone suffering from undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder. On a subsequent visit to the memorial, as Frazier was making a rub of the name of a cousin etched into the wall, he broke down.

“I’d carried so much guilt for so long, having survived when many of my friends and even family had died there,” Frazier said. “I cried very hard for a long time, and when I stopped, it felt as if a great burden had been lifted from my shoulders.”

Upon returning to his classroom, Frazier challenged his students with a project to research the names of the local servicemen who had been killed in Vietnam. They eventually created a book and a website, but Frazier sensed something more permanent was required.

“We had a lot of people donate time, money, and labor,” Frazier said. “The black marble is actually from China, where it was carved and the names engraved. I can tell you something about every one of them, and so could my students.”

Frazier is 68. He moves with the help of an ornately carved walking stick, in deference to joints afflicted with a condition traced to exposure to Agent Orange during his time in Vietnam. When it comes to sharing war stories, he keeps to his fellow vets. His life as a horse-crazy racetracker, though, is an open and entertaining book, from his time on the road with rodeo star Casey Tibbs to his rip-roaring Quarter Horse days to his tenure with the cream of the Lukas crop.

“Winning Colors was a tough filly, and strong,” Frazier said of the filly who won the Derby. “First time I got on her, she put a hump in her back like she was going to lose me. I just dropped the reins and whispered some sweet nothings in her ear. Then she walked off as easy as could be.

“I always preferred being an exercise rider to being a jock,” he added. “When I was on the ground, it seemed like I was mad all the time for no good reason, and riding races didn’t help. But in the morning, when your job is to teach a horse, in those moments I felt at peace.”

Even in the years since he stopped riding, Frazier has never gone a day without quality horse time. He strung enough of those moments together to get to a point where his PTSD could be treated, after which he could finally pay tribute to the men he left behind.

“The memorial is a small way I continue to repay their sacrifice,” Frazier said. “But as far as I’m concerned, I know I would have been dead by now if it hadn’t been for horses. Horses saved my life.”