An abundance of love between parents and their children can lead to highly improbable actions. Within days after Marine Platoon Leader Lt. Victor David Westphall III was killed in action near Con Thien in South Vietnam in 1968, his father and mother—Victor and Jeanne—began planning building a chapel in remembrance of him. They accomplished the task in less than three years at the cost of their life savings–and an eventual marital separation.
The Westphalls’ independently built chapel at 8,500 feet altitude near Taos in remote Angel Fire, New Mexico, was dedicated more than a decade before the completion of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial—The Wall—in Washington, D.C.
Steven Trout tells the Westphall family’s story in The Vietnam Veterans Memorial at Angel Fire: War, Remembrance, and an American Tragedy (University Press of Kansas, 240 pp. $50, hardcover; $19.95, paper and Kindle). Trout, who chairs the University of South Alabama English Department and co-directs the university’s Center for the Study of War and Memory, spent several years doing the research for this book. He relied heavily on the words of Victor Westphall (who died at 89 in 2003), as well as his son Walter, David’s younger brother who served in the Vietnam as an Air Force KC135 pilot.
The Westphalls expanded their plans from simply a remembrance of their son to what became the Vietnam Veterans Peace and Brotherhood Chapel. They dedicated the structure to “World Peace,” now and forever. Since then, the chapel has been at the center of repeated controversies.
Readers should bypass the book’s introduction and acknowledgement section because they give away a series of surprising, extraordinary events as the Westphalls’ lives took unexpected and challenging turns after building the Chapel.
Trout opens the story by describing the psychological relationship between Victor and David Westphall. Trout then recreates David Westphall’s seven months in the Vietnam War, using his letters to the family to provide intimate details.
The remainder of the book deals with the construction and function of the chapel, a constant struggle for the family. Trout also examines the American antiwar movement; the politics and funding of veterans memorials; the passion and interactions of Victor Westphall and visitors to the chapel; and the evolution of the ownership, name, and operation of the site.
Along with normally accepted viewpoints, Trout delves into deep and controversial arguments from the past. Several ideas were new to me—and challenging.
Near the book’s end when Victor and Walter Westphall arrive in Vietnam to visit the battleground where David was killed, they leave the reader with a somewhat contrary conclusion to all that had come before by saying that in Ho Chi Minh City, they immediately noticed a sea of young faces, a population explosion that had already left Vietnamese veterans of the “American War” vastly outnumbered by countrymen with no memory of the conflict.
Ironically, here the war seemed to matter less than it did at home.