I first visited the Angel Fire Vietnam Veteran Memorial in New Mexico on February 9, 2002. Angel Fire — a sacred burning — is an appropriate name for this first national memorial for Vietnam Veterans, built to quell, not cure, the flaming love of a father for his son lost in war. David Westphall, a Marine Platoon Commander was killed in that abysmal war, killed along with 15 men in his platoon in a brutal ambush in Con Thien on May 22, 1968, just a month-and-a-half after I returned home from Vietnam. Doc Victor Westphall, David’s father, built this memorial on ground he had bought to build and operate a resort ranch with David upon his return from Vietnam. To honor his son’s memory, Doc Westphall dedicated the rest of his life to creating a permanent memorial to peace, an effort to commemorate the loss of each American KIA. For some 35 years, he arduously endeavored to contact each family of he some 58,200 names of service members on the Vietnam Veterans Wall in Washington, DC. He reached about 42,000 of the families and established meticulous files with photos, obits, news stories, mementoes, etc. on these American KIAs. It was a painstaking and massively monumental undertaking. I spent a couple of hours looking through these testaments to members of my generation wasted in Vietnam. Sadly, today the memorial has now been co-opted by patriotic war propagandists.
In 1994, Doc Westphall took a trip to Con Thien, Vietnam taking a handful of dirt from Angel Fire and scattering it on the ground where some 26 years earlier his son David had been killed. He brought a handful of dirt from Con Thien and scattered it on the ground here below this monument on Angel Fire. The plaque pictured here relates this event and the quote below by Doc emphasizes how important that trip to Vietnam was to him, how sacred he found the memorial he built for his son to be, as he commented in a 1994 Albuquerque Journal article:
“There is an aura of mysticism surrounding this whole place, this whole situation. The aboriginal peoples of this area sensed it and the people who come to visit it today repeatedly have indicated these same feelings to me. They sense something in the place they do not fully understand. There is something about this place, something more than just being a beautiful location. I’m just trying to fill in the pieces of the mysticism surrounding it. Perhaps it all leads up to my trip to Vietnam. It was a closure, a relief to have done it. It gave me a peace of mind. It was something that must be done; and having done it, I am relieved.”
What deep sadness is remembered here, what desperate hope that somehow our species can find a better way to solve our human conflicts other than by endless war. This is holy, hallowed ground. As I turned off Rt. 64 in Northern New Mexico to enter Angel Fire on that cold February afternoon in 2002, two ravens, bigger than I had ever seen, welcomed me. Their feathers were ruffled, blowing in the stiff mountain wind that often wails like a banshee here, so appropriate, so right for the keening clamor to rarely cease, to regularly sound an alarum so we can never forget. Here’s a poem I wrote about their welcoming me:
Doc Westphall’s wife, Jeanne, David’s mother, suggested that his insurance money be used to create a “Vietnam Veterans Peace and Brotherhood Chapel.” The Chapel was dedicated on May 22, 1971, the 3rd anniversary of David’s death. The memorial, like the Wall in Washington, DC, completed over 10 years later, was intended to be a place to honor and reflect upon peace rather than war. Doc Westphall, describing the purpose of the Angel Fire memorial, is quoted on the Memorial website: “Following the death of our son, Victor David Westphall, on May 22, 1968, in Vietnam, we decided to build an enduring symbol of the tragedy and futility of war . . . We who must will do what we can to encourage humankind to preserve rather than to destroy.”
I was most privileged to be able to shake Doc’s hand and to speak briefly to him during my first visit to Angel Fire in 2002. He was sitting at his cluttered desk in a small cubicle of an office. I thanked him for all the dedicated work he was doing to memorialize the tragedy of the Vietnam War, while keeping the focus upon peace. Tears welled up in his eyes, as he wished me continued healing and peace. I was certainly glad that I took the time to speak with him, because he died in July of 2003, shortly before I left for a two-year stint with Nonviolent Peaceforce in war-torn Sri Lanka. Doc, along with his wife Jeanne, is buried on the grounds of Angel Fire.
I’ve visited Angel Fire three other times since 2002. In 2005 I got there too late in the afternoon to visit the exhibit area, but walked around the grounds, taking the three pictures above. When I visited in 2008, the exhibit area was closed due to extensive renovations being done by the State of New Mexico. In 2004, the David Victor Westphall Foundation approached the State Parks Department to take over operation of the Memorial and on Veterans Day of 2005 the site was dedicated as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial State Park.
My last visit was several days ago before the 4th of July holiday weekend. Understated, but definite changes were immediately apparent. The tall sign pointing up to the Memorial on the hill, where the ravens were perched my first visit, is gone. A plethora of American Flags lined every sidewalk throughout the Memorial Grounds. A plaque inside the main entrance of the refurbished exhibit area stated that the purpose of the memorial was:
“to honor America’s Veterans and members of its military forces by memorializing the sacrifices they have made and by recognizing the sense of duty and the courage they have displayed as they answered their country’s call to arms.”
From the numerous pictures of leather glad motorcyclists, it appears the Memorial has become an outpost of the New Mexico Chapter of Run For The Wall, a Rolling Thunder-like group of veterans who tend to believe that we could have won the Vietnam War had the politicians not interfered. There is even a picture of an elderly Doc Westphall decked out in a full set of leathers, sitting on a huge Harley, brandishing a M-16. The revised Vision Statement expands the scope of the memorial from emphasis upon the tragic losses of the Vietnam War to a glorification of all wars fought by American armed forces. Instead of memorializing a father’s grief for a son lost in a controversial war — the motivation for the memorial — it now proudly supports America’s military adventures. The exhibit area has been augmented with most effective audio, visual and film displays about the Vietnam War and a moving additional section dealing with women military veterans as well as women Red Cross and USO volunteers.
But, there is also a large exhibit area dealing with the POW/MIA issue. I was extremely disturbed by the emphasis placed upon what I consider to be the fallacious issue of POW/MIAs. In the mid-1980s widely publicized speculation by vocal activists such as former Special Forces LTC Bo Gritz concerning POW/MIAs left behind in Southeast Asia after Operation Homecoming, bolstered by popular Rambo and Chuck Norris movies, was effectively used to mute left-leaning policies of Vietnam Veteran’s organizations, especially Bobby Mueller’s Vietnam Veterans of America. It became a favorite canard of right-wing politicians, who gained popular support in the polls and on editorial pages, to re-name major highways for POW/MIAs. For example, Sunrise Highway, New York State Route 27 on Long Island, where I lived most of my adult life, was designated POW/MIA Memorial Highway in 1997 by the New York State Senate. The cost of signage renaming the highway along its entire 120-mile route from Queens to Montauk was more than the Nassau and Suffolk counties funded for County Veterans Services, which actually help veterans and their families.
So, why do I contend that the POW/MIA issue for the Vietnam War is a faux issue? According to the DOD Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office, the number of servicemen still unaccounted for from the Vietnam War is 1,713. This number pales in comparison to the numbers of those still listed as missing from the Korean War, 8,028 – over four times as many as missing in Vietnam — and just under 79,000 missing for WW II! Yes, geo-political realities for the eras of Korea and WW II were much different than those turbulent times following Vietnam; nevertheless, right-wing politicians and causes have used the POW/MIA issue as an impetus to rewrite significant portions of the history of Vietnam Veteran activism and to bolster support for militaristic causes.
I find it tragically ironic that the relatively low numbers of those unaccounted for from the Vietnam War has been so successfully used as a political red herring to influence policy and politics in our militaristic society and culture to include significantly altering the purpose of the first National Memorial for Vietnam Veterans at Angel Fire. It is most unlikely that I shall visit Angel Fire again. I have no need to visit another American War Memorial touting American exceptionalism. Besides, the sacredness of the site for me is better kept safe in memory, as it was before I visited it this past Fourth of July weekend.