The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

August/September 2003
FEATURE ARTICLE
   
 

Victor Westphall: "He Was A Father To All of Us"

BY JIM BELSHAW


On Veterans Day 2002 four helicopters lifted off in a swirl of snow from the small airport at Angel Fire, high in the mountains of northern New Mexico. Three National Guard Black Hawks formed up behind a smaller helicopter, a Huey - itself a veteran of the Vietnam War, shot down, recovered, refurbished - and on the last leg of a nationwide flight honoring Vietnam veterans.

Inside the Huey, a small, elderly man peeked out at the familiar landscape below him. The trip would take only minutes. From the moment they lifted off, Dr. Victor Westphall could see the monument he built in the memory of his son, David, a Marine Corps officer killed in Vietnam. In the years to come after Westphall completed what would become the Angel Fire Vietnam Veterans National Memorial, thousands of veterans came to the Moreno Valley, finding a sense of peace in a place Native Americans long ago called holy. When the Huey landed, hands reached out and gently lifted him into a wheelchair. He often said they were his sons, all of them.

On July 23, 2003, Victor Westphall died of natural causes. He was 89 years old.

He was found in the small apartment on the grounds of the monument that became his life's work after his son was killed in an ambush on May 22, 1968, in Quang Tri Province. Using the $30,000 life insurance payment from David's death, Westphall started building the chapel within months of learning he had lost his son.

In 1983, he turned over the memorial, with a visitors center added on, to the Disabled American Veterans. In 1993, Westphall and the DAV clashed over his salary, living arrangements, and management of the memorial. In 1998, the DAV returned the memorial to Westphall.

Thousands of veterans have come through its doors. He remembered faces, he remembered names, he spoke to every Vietnam veteran with genuine compassion and caring.

Upon hearing of his death, John Garcia, director of the New Mexico Veterans Services Department, called him "this little old man who could move mountains." Lanny Tonning, a member of the memorial's board of directors, said Westphall was "the core of what this country is all about."

"He didn't wait for anything," Tonning said. "He just did what he wanted to do to recognize his son, and in doing that he recognized everyone who was wearing a uniform at the time and everyone who wore it afterwards and everyone who wears it now and everyone who will ever wear it. That's how one individual parent respected all the soldiers. I can't measure his importance to us. He's been a de facto father to Vietnam veterans."

John Garcia, who worked with Jan Scruggs in bringing The Wall to fruition, introduced Scruggs to Westphall ten years before The Wall was built. Garcia believes that in Victor Westphall's memorial to his son Scruggs found the seed that would grow into the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.

"The Wall was created as a result of the chapel," Garcia said. "The Vietnam Veterans Chapel in Angel Fire was the first memorial in the country paying tribute to the men who fought and died in Vietnam. Dr. Westphall was ahead of everyone in the country. He was the first person to step out and say, "I care about what you guys did. I care about who you all are.' He was like a father to all of us. He set the bar for recognizing Vietnam veterans, of separating the war from the warrior. He was like the godfather of all of that."

Vietnam veterans came to Westphall's chapel to find peace. Families left photos of dead sons. Alongside a photo of Westphall's son in the chapel, twelve photos of others killed in the war are displayed on a rotating basis. As the years passed, the chapel grew well beyond New Mexico to embrace veterans from all over the country.

Invariably, those who come to Angel Fire find themselves talking about its sense of the spiritual. Bill Duker, who met Westphall shortly after the monument was built, said it was not only the place that brought a sense of peace.

"He was probably the most spiritual man I have ever known," Duker said. "He took this horrible pain of losing his son and turned it into a memorial that is such a beautiful experience, and not just for veterans, but for anyone who goes there."

In a 1995 newspaper interview, John Rossie, a Navy veteran from Denver said, "There's something pervasive in the atmosphere here that makes it so personal. When I walked into the chapel the first time I came here, it was like being washed over by a loving energy. It's a holy place and it reaches deep into my soul."

That same year, Victor Westphall spoke of Angel Fire's "mysticism."

"This aura of mysticism is something I don't talk about unless the subject comes up," he said. "No particular reason. I just don't. But it is there. It surrounds this whole place, this whole situation. The aboriginal peoples of this area sensed it and the people who come to visit it today have indicated these same feelings to me. They sense something in the place they do not fully understand."

VVA New Mexico State Council President Peter Weber remembers Westphall's equilibrium and calm throughout the upheaval when he fought with the DAV for control of the memorial. Weber said he had no recollection of Westphall succumbing to bitterness or acrimony.

"Through all the ups and downs with the DAV, I never heard him say a bad word about anybody," Weber said. "And through it all, he kept the chapel going. He did all this by himself and there was never any self-aggrandizement about it. I went up there a lot and he was always glad to see you. His door was always open. You could put a panel together and tell it to build a memorial to Vietnam veterans and that panel would not have the same intuition and foresight that he did. He somehow knew this was the place and he knew exactly what to build on it And no matter when you went up there, and I went up there a lot, he was in his office, and he was glad to see you and he remembered your name. He remembered everybody's name."

The chapel never closes, a policy evolving from a note Westphall found one morning on the chapel door - "Why did you lock me out?" the note said.

It was the last time anyone was locked out.

The cross in the chapel is 13 feet high; the pictures of men killed in Vietnam always number 13; he flew an American flag with 13 stars.

"He said he had recurring dreams in which the number 13 always appeared," Duker said.

"Many years later, some of the men who served with his son in Vietnam came to visit. He found out that on the day his son died, twelve others died with him."

Duker said an overheard conversation between Westphall and a Vietnam veteran was a life-changing moment for him.

"It was kind of controversial at the time," Duker said. "Dr. Westphall said if the Vietnamese soldier who killed his son later died in the war and his family sent a photo to him, he would put that photo in the chapel as well. Here's a man who lost a son he loved dearly and yet he could forgive the soldier who took his life. That's an extraordinary human being. I don't know if there's anyone I've met in my life I admire more - his drive, his dream, all the obstacles he had to overcome to honor his son, and not just his son, but every soldier who died in the war. He was an extraordinary man."

In an interview, Westphall said of the monument: "I knew it was destined for something. I didn't know what, but from the beginning it was destined for something important. For the veterans, many of whom come here with great trepidation, who found peace after being here. They sense this place might tell them something about themselves, something in the background, a mystery, an unknown quantity they didn't know they'd find. But it's not confined to veterans. It's pretty much general among the entire population of visitors. Totally on their own, with no prompting whatsoever, they will say sense something, and they can't quite put their finger on it."

Now it is up to others to carry on.

"He was there before any of us," John Garcia said. "He fought the battle single-handedly until the rest of us could catch up to him. He started the fire in all of us and he kept it burning until his last day. His legacy is etched in stone and he's handed it to us now."

   

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