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Hope and healing: ‘On This Hallowed Ground’ tells story of NM Vietnam Veterans Memorial

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial near Angel Fire. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Victor “Doc” Westphall had a vision to honor soldiers killed in the Vietnam War.

In 1971, he began to develop a memorial site near Angel Fire.

This was after his son, Lt. David Westphall, died in an ambush at Con Thien in Quang Tri province, South Vietnam, in 1968.

Sarah Kanafani

Today, the Peace and Brotherhood Chapel in Angel Fire is a beacon of hope and healing. Westphall’s journey is the subject of the documentary “On This Hallowed Ground: Vietnam Veterans Memorial Born From Tragedy,” by Sarah Kanafani.

“This was the first memorial to honor both sides of the war,” Kanafani says. “(Victor) wanted it to be a place of healing. For a lot of men, it takes them many times to get through the grounds. There are efforts now trying to build a counseling clinic for family members for men. It’s not just a museum that you walk through. It’s a place for healing. I never got to meet Doc, but he would welcome any of these men to this home.”

The documentary will air at 10 p.m. Sunday, May 24, and again at 8 p.m. Monday, May 25, on New Mexico PBS. It is also streaming online at nmpbs.org.

“New Mexico PBS believes it is important to present this award-winning, uniquely New Mexico film, from a New Mexico filmmaker, especially at this time, as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Angel Fire is a place of healing and honor,” says Franz Joachim, General Manager and CEO, NMPBS. “On this Memorial Day weekend, and throughout the year, New Mexico PBS presents programs which commemorate, honor, and may be of interest to those who serve, have served, and their families and friends.”

Kanafani spent about two years working on the documentary.

The film originally started as a way to document the restoration of a Huey helicopter.

“It was just going to focus on the restoration,” she says. “As I got to talking, I had no idea that the memorial existed. I grew up in Santa Fe. We went to Angel Fire and we saw this weird building. When I heard the story behind it, I was just floored. This needed to be bigger than a restoration video. I had to figure out how to meld the two stories.”

The filming was done before a script was written.

“A lot of the people that lived through this aren’t around anymore,” she says. “We had to capture the stories as quickly as we could.”

It has received two Telly Awards, for best documentary and for editing.

Kanafani says that after Westphall’s son died, the crushing news left him and his wife with an unavoidable question that haunts millions who have lost loved ones in wars: “What do we do now?”

For Westphall and his wife, Jeanne, their response was to honor the only thing that is worthy of honor in fatal conflict – the sons and daughters, mothers and fathers – who fought and bled when their country called.

Their response became a battle of its own.

Through financial struggles, political controversy and a broken spirit, they succeeded in building a place to heal the brokenhearted and honor their boy.

“Finding a lot of the archival footage became tough,” she says. “There wasn’t a lot of Doc or David in the younger years. There’s not footage or photos. Had we just focused on that, the film would have been about 15 minutes. That was the challenge, and we needed to make this more about the two men. It’s an integral part of the film.”

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