Greed plowed cities desolate. Lusts ran snorting through the streets. Pride reared up to desecrate shrines and there were no retreats, so man learned to shed the tears with which to measure out his years.
~ David Westphall
Like with so many of the memorable, interesting or touching experiences in our lives, we stumbled accidentally upon the Vietnam Veterans Memorial State Park in Angel Fire, New Mexico. Up with the dawn, we were looking for breakfast when we spied a white wing of a building catching the early morning light on top of a hill rising out of the flat valley floor. We somehow missed reading the sign at the bottom of the drive and only realized it was a war memorial after we’d dismounted and approached the entrance. It was a simple opening – no gate – cut in a low whitewashed adobe wall overhung with flowering branches. Even standing in the parking lot, a sweet solemn peace flowed out from the garden, surrounding us and calling us in. John’s hand squeezed tighter around mine. He took a big breath and led me through the entrance.
It doesn’t matter how often we enter such sites, and we’ve visited many over the years, they always wrench our hearts. John bears the brunt of these encounters. I stand witness. Some things we share – the times, our youth, the grief of parting, the fear of losing each other forever – but my knowledge of war comes second-hand, from reports, accounts, anecdotes, film and of course living with its fallout in the after years. It is John who walks into these memorials knowing the wounds will reopen; the memories will surface, the chronic dull ache of grief and regret will sharpen into focus and surge forward with all the primal intensity those original experiences engendered. And yet, re-opening those wounds also brings healing and the solace of tears. There is something about remembrance, which comforts and restores. Our souls are nourished and refurbished by these repositories of memory. They reassure us that yes, it really happened, and yes, it was as terrible and fruitless and horrifying as we remember, and yes, we were changed by these events forever.
I remember another trip, another memorial we stumbled upon, on another deserted road, early one morning. We were visiting Holland, driving around on back roads from town to town, exploring as we went. The Netherlands American Cemetery lies just outside the village of Margarten, ten kilometers (six miles) east of Maastricht. It is the final resting place of 8,301 American soldiers who died nearby during WWII. Both of our fathers returned from that war; both were decorated and wounded and both made a career of the army. So we stopped and walked the curved white rows of gravestones carved with crosses and six-pointed stars and even an occasional turban. And we wept and mourned and gazed in the reflecting pool and thought about how we came to stand where we did, surviving the exigencies of two wars to bear our own children.
The memorial in Angel Fire was built in memory of a dead child. David Westphall was killed in an ambush at Con Thien, Vietnam May 22, 1968 three months before our son was born. His parents had acquired the property where the memorial now stands with the intention of building a resort. Instead they created a chapel in honor of their son and his fallen comrades. Doc Westphall did most of the work himself, selling off bits of the ranch to finance the building and gardens. In 1994 he visited the site of David’s ambush and sprinkled soil from the chapel grounds upon it. He brought back a handful of Vietnamese earth to scatter on the gardens. In a mystical bit of synchronicity Con Thien translates as “hill of angels.” Doc and his wife are both buried here in the place they felt the closest to their boy.
The chapel rises up to a slender peak on two smooth buttresses that look like white wings. It is simple and elegant inside, full of poignant symbolism. A step tier of upholstered benches face a tall three branched candlestick that incorporates the shape of a cross. It stands in the narrowest corner of the chapel where the walls come together to form the prow of the building. Scattered along the benches are boxes of Kleenex. That homely sensitive touch made us laugh through our tears as we blew our noses. We were happily surprised to find the chapel unlocked at 6:30 in the morning. As it turns out, it is never locked. The morning after the dedication Doc Westphall found a note scrawled on a scrap of wood leaning against the locked door. It said, “Why did you lock the door when I needed to come in?” The chapel has remained unlocked ever since.
The pasture in which the chapel stands has become a garden. Shaded paths, lined with bricks that bear the same names as The Wall in Washington D.C., curve past flower beds to the small grave site, benches overlooking the valley, a statue of a soldier writing a letter home and a retired Huey helicopter. The statue is especially moving because the chapel contains excerpts of David’s letters home.
Angel Fire is the only state park dedicated exclusively as a war memorial to Vietnam veterans. It was the first Vietnam War memorial to be built. Today it also holds an amphitheater, which hosts concerts and special events.
It took a long time for this country to follow Doc Westphall’s example in honoring the Viet Vets. Even after The Wall was finally erected and visited by millions, my Dad, Lt. Col. Henry G. Phillips, lost a hard-fought battle with the The Ninth Infantry Division Association to allow Vietnam vets to join the association. The discrimination against returning soldiers casts a long shadow to this day. It makes sites like Angel Fire’s all the more remarkable and treasured.
We left the chapel and its beautiful grounds deeply moved by the kind and generous spirit of this place. Some guardian angel watches here, I think, whispering messages to each soul, dripping balm into old wounds, singing of life to be lived with gratitude and thanksgiving.
Each for his own memorial earned praise that will never die and with it the grandest of all sepulchers, not that in which mortal bones are laid but a home in the minds of men. ~The memorial plinth, Netherlands War Cemetery