Mention “Vietnam Veterans Memorial,” and the two long, dark walls that dig deep physically into the earth and emotionally into this country’s conscience at the bustling National Mall in downtown Washington, D.C., usually come to mind. But far, far away, on the high plains of northern New Mexico, there is another Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It was built in the early 1970s, 11 years before the iconic Washington monument, at a time when saluting troops who returned from the Southeast Asia conflict wasn’t particularly considered politically correct.
This original Vietnam Veterans Memorial (www.vietnamveteransmemorial.org) is located just outside of Angel Fire, N.M., on a sun-kissed, grassy range overlooking the Moreno Valley and embraced by the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. It was created by Victor and Jeanne Westphall to honor their son, 1st Lt. David Westphall, who was killed, along with 16 other Marines, in an ambush in Con Thien on May 22, 1968. But the Westphalls quickly realized their project also had significance for soldiers who were returning from a war they didn’t start to face criticism they didn’t deserve.
With this in mind, the Westphalls went against the anti-war sentiment that gripped the nation in 1971, and opened the Peace and Brotherhood Chapel as a place not only to honor a young lieutenant who sacrificed all for his country, but as a quiet sanctuary for those who did come back but couldn’t leave their painful memories behind. The grounds around the Chapel expanded, and eventually, it became the Vietnam Veterans Memorial State Park – and the only state park in New Mexico that, thanks to donor groups, doesn’t charge an entrance fee.
The focal point of the memorial is the chapel, which, because of its purpose, never closes. Designed by Santa Fe architect Ted Luna, it is a conjunction of two stylized, arched, white peaks that rise 50 feet into the blue New Mexico sky. Inside is a simple setting of descending seats curved towards natural light emanating from the sliver of a tall, vertical window. Tissue boxes dot the seats – and are often used.
The memorial’s 8,000-square-foot visitor center preserves the Vietnam experience through pictures from the war, unit banners, displays and a reference library.
The center also shows “Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam,” a documentary movie by Robin Michael.
Outside, the life-size bronze statue “Dear Mom and Dad,” created by Taos artist Doug Scott, portrays a young soldier sitting, apparently struggling to describe his feelings in a letter to home. An M-16 rifle is slung across his shoulder. Nearby is a Huey helicopter, one that actually served in Vietnam, mounted in a tilted, nose-down position, as if heading quickly toward yet another mission. Also sharing the grounds are meditative gardens, a small amphitheater and panoramic, inspirational views of northern New Mexico.
No, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in New Mexico is not as well known as The Wall in Washington, D.C., but it speaks the same language of remembrance and reflection to all who answered the call of duty, whether it was in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan. And this place of peace is just as compelling because, on the winds that lightly stroke the surrounding rolling, open grasslands, it whispers softly to those who well earned the right to hear one simple message: The war is over, welcome home.