“When sons or daughters die in battle, parents are confronted with the choice of what they will do to honor the courage and sacrifice of that son or daughter. Following the death of our son, Victor David Westphall, on May 22, 1968, in Vietnam, we decided to build an enduring symbol of the tragedy and futility of war.” Dr. Victor Westphall
Following the death of their son, U.S. Marine Corps First Lieutenant Victor David Westphall III, Jeanne and Dr. Victor Westphall began construction of the Vietnam Veterans Peace and Brotherhood Chapel to honor the memory of their son andthe fifteen men that died with him near Con Thien, South Vietnam on May 22, 1968.
David’s mother, Jeanne Westphall, suggested that the money from David’s life insurance policies be used to create the “Vietnam Veterans Peace and Brotherhood Chapel.” She and David’s father, Dr. Victor Westphall dedicated the rest of their lives to seeing this vision become a reality.
Building a memorial to honor Vietnam veterans was not popular during this time; the country was still involved in an increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam. However, the Westphall family persevered, relying primarily on its own financial resources.
The Chapel was dedicated on May 22, 1971, the 3rd anniversary of the death of 1st Lt. David Westphall. It was the first major memorial created to honor the veterans of the Vietnam War, and inspired the establishment of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C., which was completed over ten years later, in 1982.
Victor “Doc” Westphall dedicated his life to the Memorial. He lived in an apartment on site, and his entire purpose was honoring his son and the more than 58,000 others who died in Vietnam. He reached out to the families that had lost their loved ones, and welcomed home the “maimed in body and spirit”. In his own words, “We who must will do what we can to encourage humankind to preserve rather than to destroy.”
Over the years, Doc Westphall and the David Westphall Veterans Foundation (DWVF) sought permanent sources of funding. In 1982, the Disabled American Veterans made a commitment for funds and ownership was turned over to them. In 1985, they broke ground on a badly needed Visitor Center. The design was considered very carefully due to the distinctive design of the chapel. The result was a primarily underground structure. From the valley floor all that is visible is the chapel and the flag triad.
Inside the Visitors Center is a Gift Shop, media room showing the HBO documentary Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam, a veterans room honoring those KIA and MIA and a photo gallery room. The Visitors Center and Gift Shop are open 7 days a week 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Also during the DAV’s time here, they were able to purchase 25 acres of land giving the site a buffer zone from future development. In 1998, the DAV withdrew support and returned ownership to the DWVF.
In 2004 the DWVF approached the state of New Mexico seeking another source of funding. Governor Bill Richardson saw the value in helping preserve this unique memorial and on Veterans Day 2005 the site became the Vietnam Veterans Memorial State Park.
There were three conditions to this transfer. First, if the state ever decides to cease operating it as a state park, the site reverts to the DWVF. Second, the foundation didn’t want visitors to pay to visit the memorial. This is the only state park in New Mexico that does not charge a fee. The foundation assists the park with this budget shortfall through their fundraising efforts. Lastly, is the very unique condition that the chapel remains open 24 hours a day. When Doc Westphall was building the chapel, he began locking the doors at night. One morning when he returned he discovered a note had been scrawled on a piece of scrap plywood. It said, “Why did you lock the doors when I needed to come in?” Since then the doors have never been locked.
As a result of the partnership between the Foundation and State Parks, many renovations and improvements were completed. The amphitheater was the first of these. The Phase I project also included a new roof, stucco and furnace for the chapel. Phase II improvements for renovation of the Visitor Center were completed in 2010. On July 3, 2017, the Memorial was transferred from State Parks to the New Mexico Department of Veterans Services. New Mexico State Government made this change in order to put the Memorial under an agency that has the sole purpose of serving veterans.
Management of the Memorial was transferred from the NM State Parks to NM Department of Veterans Services as of July 1, 2017, and the Memorial is now operated as simply the “Vietnam Veterans Memorial”.
Today, the Memorial is home to the Chapel, the Visitors Center, an authentic Huey helicopter which saw action in Vietnam during the war, the Veterans Memorial Walkway, a Gift Shop, Memorial Gardens, an amphitheater, as well as the gravesites of Jeanne and Victor Westphall. The Memorial welcomes over 45,000 visitors annually.