While many of my fellow Coloradans were planning barbecues, camping trips or excursions to a favorite fishing spot over the Labor Day weekend, I was riding with two other motorcyclists to a reunion of sorts: with the ghosts of friends from a younger time.
Our destination was the Vietnam Veterans Memorial State Park in Angel Fire, N.M. It is very spiritual place that sends a shiver through your body and puts you near tears. It’s as though the men and women the memorial honors were saying, “What took you so long?”
Leading the ride was Ian Hargest, who had taken part in several Run For The Wall rides from Ontario, Calif., to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. His niece, Jessica, also a RFTW participant, was the passenger on his Honda Goldwing. Fellow Colorado FreeWheeler and RFTW rider Nancy Stern, who rode a Yamaha Star cruiser, was the contact for the ride to Angel Fire to set bricks in the memorial’s curving walkways.
I had purchased a memorial brick to honor the memory of my college friend, Marine 1st Lt. Kenneth B.K. Kozai, who was killed Nov. 29, 1969, piloting a helicopter on a medevac mission in Quang Tri Province, Republic of Vietnam.
Ian’s purpose was to place memorial bricks honoring his late father David M. Hargest, an Army veteran who served tours in Korea and Vietnam, and passed away in 2017, as well as several other relatives. Those memorialized needed only to have been in the armed forces — service in Vietnam isn’t a requirement.
Ken Kozai and I were good friends at the University of New Mexico, and we frequently rode motorcycles together (although not always in a prudent way). He and his then-wife Kathleen had me over to their apartment for a real Japanese-style meal, accompanied by frequent toasts with warm sake (rice wine).
Kathleen Phillips-Hellman came to Angel Fire to place a brick honoring her second husband, former Marine Capt. Robert Hellman who died in 2008. We spent a good part of the day on Saturday, Aug. 30, reminiscing about the good times we all shared in Albuquerque in the 1960s.
But the memorial is a powerful thing — especially the chapel — that awakens emotions kept under control all these decades. Marines don’t cry, right?
Angel Fire was the first major Vietnam War memorial built in the United States and was a project undertaken by the parents of Marine 1st Lt. David Westphall, who was killed in action May 22, 1968, at Con Thien, Republic of Vietnam.
Lt. Westphall’s father, Dr. Victor Westphall, was a builder and developer who was creating a golf course and development on the property at Angel Fire when the family got word of their son’s death. Dr. Westphall, who passed away in 2003, wrote that after David’s death “we decided to build an enduring symbol of the tragedy and futility of war.”
Building a Vietnam memorial in 1968 was no easy task – by then the war had drawn substantial opposition.
David’s mother, Jeanne Westphall, suggested that money from his insurance policies be used to build the impressive chapel. The family scraped together the funds to finally dedicate the chapel on May 22, 1971, the third anniversary of David’s death.
For a time, the Disabled American Veterans supported and owned the property, and then, finally, in 2005, the facility became the Vietnam Veterans Memorial State Park. It is the only state park in New Mexico that doesn’t charge an entry fee.
The laying of the bricks is an impressive ceremony carried out by Run For The Wall members, who showed up in force on motorcycles. The bricks, with the names of those honored engraved on them, were reverentially carried from the center’s garage to a staging area.
There, in a prearranged sequence, the names were read aloud and either the family or friends of the veteran honored or a volunteer came forward to receive the bricks and carry them the area along the paths where they would be set.
It is an event that I won’t soon forget. That ride — through some of New Mexico’s most scenic country — gave me a sense of reconnecting, not only with Ken, but with other friends from the Marine Corps and Navy long since gone. Their presence seemed palpable.
The laying of the bricks, which takes place annually on the Saturday before Labor Day, is a fitting tribute for those who gave so much.
Peter G. Chronis is a retired Denver newspaper writer.