Angel Fire Vietnam Veterans Memorial

By Jim Belshaw

Albuquerque Journal Columnist

Believers in mysteries of the spirit often speak of them in hushed tones, whispers not so much conspiratorial as they are protective. A mystery of the spirit comes equipped with no tangible evidence of its existence, no incontrovertible proof with which to fend off the skeptic.

"This aura of mysticism is something I don't talk about unless the subject comes up," Dr. Victor Westphall says in his small office at the Angel Fire Vietnam Veterans Memorial. "No particular reason. I just don't."

But I have brought it up. So we talk.

A light snow powders the mountain between Taos and Angel Fire, a preview of things to come. Icicles hang from the eaves of cabins built along the two-lane highway. Bare cottonwoods stand sentinel along the narrow, twisting road; winter-gray aspens cluster in dense confederations, creating an illusion of warmth through intimacy. The road is dry, but a rust-colored snow blankets the shoulder, evidence of sanding crews keeping the road passable. Billowing clouds of red dust hang in the wakes of log-hauling 18-wheelers headed down the mountain to lumber mills.

At the end of the switchback descent into the Moreno Valley, the road straightens. On the right, the valley stretches to the horizon; on the left, a lone building rises from a commanding slope. Its slim white silhouette slices upward from the earth, reaching for the brilliant mountain sky.

Dr. Victor Westphall began building it five days after his son, David, a Marine Corps infantry officer, was killed in Vietnam on May 22, 1968. In 1971, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial at Angel Fire was dedicated. It is now a national monument administered by the Disabled American Veterans, though Dr. Westphall has stayed on.

In the chapel, a photo of his son is flanked by pictures of a dozen more New Mexicans killed in Vietnam. Each month the dozen are replaced by twelve more. They face a tall, slender white cross rising from the floor across the room. At the base of it are seven small candles and a single poinsettia.

In the visitor center next to the chapel, Dr. Westphall works in a his office. We talk for 45 minutes before I broach the subject. I tell him it's not the first time it has occurred to me.

"There is something about this place that's ... holy," I say, because at the moment I can't think of a better word.

"Yes," he agrees with quick, unequivocal conviction. "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."

He is 81 years old. Last spring, he traveled to Vietnam. He found his way to a particular spot off a road that goes around Con Thien, which means "Place of Angels." He brought a small amount of Angel Fire soil with him and spread it at this spot. He scooped up an equal amount of Asian soil from the Place of Angels to be spread at Angel Fire.

Twenty-six years ago, Victor Westphall's son walked in that same place -- and one day he died there.

"People approach the Moreno Valley, and they sense something they don't understand," Dr. Westphall says. "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."

He shows me a photo the governor of Taos Pueblo gave him. It is of a nearby rock outcropping with a lone pine tree struggling upward.

"The governor said it was some kind of altar in the old times," he says.

Victor Westphall has been at Angel Fire for a quarter of a century. He has talked to thousands of Vietnam veterans and thousands of others with no connection to the war. He finds a commonality in them.

"It's here for all of us," he says. "For the veterans, many who 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, not at all. It's pretty much general among the entire population of visitors. Totally on their own, with no prompting whatsoever, they will say they sense something; and they can't quite put their finger on it."

Outside, a cold wind swirls up the Moreno Valley, rushing past the slim white chapel on its way to Wheeler Peak, the tallest in New Mexico. All three lie in a direct line -- the highest mountain, the commanding rise from which a white silhouette blooms, the long sweep of the valley.

It's one of those thing you can't quite put your finger on, one of those things spoken of in whispers.

copyright 1994, Albuquerque Journal, all rights reserved.

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