Commemorating the Vietnam War in northern New Mexico
This Memorial Day weekend, the population of northern New Mexico will swell by thousands of people. Many will come for more than the magnificent vistas of the Sangre de Cristo mountains and perfect weather. They visit because the area is home to the first-ever Vietnam Veterans Memorial, built back in 1971, when the war was still grinding on. It was established near the small town of Angel Fire by Victor and Jeanne Westphall, whose son David had been killed in Vietnam in 1968.
The weekend's activities in and around Taos and other towns will be filled with solemn ceremonies and tributes with a focus on healing. This theme got me thinking about another veteran of the Vietnam War — a Viet Cong commander — who shared some of his combat stories when I visited his island home near Hanoi last year.
His name was Vu Dinh Khoi, and he was now an old man. We met at the entrance to a secluded relic from the "American War," as it is referred to today in Vietnam and much of Southeast Asia, a multi-level bunker built into a mountain cave on an island east of Hanoi. The facility was used as a hospital for Viet Cong officers during the war, and although Vu's face and the cave's cement walls had become weathered over the decades, his officer's uniform still looked fresh. Since the Vietnamese government opened it to tourists a few years ago, he's been donning his colors a few times a week to give guided tours of the hospital cave.
Before showing us around, he introduced himself by saluting us and explained that he was honored to share his stories with Americans, something of a healing process of his own. It turns out that Vu still carries two American bullets around, permanently lodged in his head. He shared this story with a smile, just as he would smile later while telling us about American planes he shot down from the top of the very mountain we were standing within. Later in the war, he said, an American plane bombed the area, permanently disrupting the springs that fed water into the cave.
Combat tales of suffering and retaliation rolled from his memory like the recounting of an insanely violent ping-pong match. But despite the uniform he wore proudly, he relayed every detail without so much as a single cheerleading or disparaging remark for either side.
Our tour concluded with Vu ushering my fiancé, myself and our two British traveling companions into a small, empty cement room lit by a single dim bulb. Our footsteps echoed through the strange acoustics of the space and our guide asked us to line up with our backs against one of the cold walls. A brief sensation of panic could be felt coursing through all of us, up from our sandals, through our travel-worn t-shirts to the unkempt, greasy mops on top of our heads.
"Now we're in trouble," one of us whispered.
For a second, we all feared that we had been tricked by Vu's elaborate ruse and were now being lined up before a one-man firing squad with a 30-year-old score to settle. Sensing our unease, Vu flashed a smile from behind the room's imposing shadow and then forcefully thrust both of his arms towards us, at the same time unleashing a Vietnamese love song in an elegant Asian vibrato that reverberated off the concrete walls in eerie beauty.
For his final number, Vu sang a sample of a Vietnamese anthem whose only discernible lyrics were the chorus: "Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh." The march echoed around us until the single voice seemed to carry the sound of the entire Viet Cong army.
Recalling that moment, and the warm, smiling face of a small, harmless old man, I can't help thinking about the bullets in his head and wondering if the man that fired them will be on hand for any of the many services in the West and across northern New Mexico this weekend. I also wonder if David Westphall knew any of the American soldiers that were shot down over that hospital cave.
I'm sure we'll never know, but this Monday, when representatives from the Vietnamese-American community lay a wreath at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Angel Fire, N.M., to continue down the long road of healing and reconciliation, I7;ll be thinking about both David Westphall and Vu Dinh Khoi. I wish they could have had a chance to meet and shake hands as old men.