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
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
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
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
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
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
"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."