This editorial first appeared on Memorial Day 2009.
On days like today, our thoughts turn to those who gave their lives for our country in the wars fought on our behalf. But we should also remember those who had to give them up. American soldiers are typically young, healthy, vibrant and in the prime of life. For those who died in service to their country, they had much to live for. We honor them and call them heroes because they placed service above self and made the ultimate sacrifice for their county. But death on the battlefield is not where the suffering ends. The loss of these soldiers leaves a void for countless Americans stateside. There are wounds that never heal. Victor and Jeanne Westphall had one of those wounds. They lost their son David in Vietnam, and to cope, they proceeded to dedicate their lives to making something out of his tragic death. Their work took the form of a memorial on some land they owned in northern New Mexico. Using the life insurance money they received from their son’s death, they began building a chapel — the Peace and Brotherhood Chapel — on a hilltop overlooking Angel Fire; the father physically built much of the chapel himself. And from this project, a monument to Vietnam veterans grew. Today, it’s a part of the state park system and includes a visitors center that is filled with photos and books from and about the Vietnam War. You can’t walk passed the countless displays without feeling a bit of the horrors of war and hurting for those who were involved in this conflict in one way or another. The American death toll in Vietnam, during the eight years in which U.S. soldiers were in combat operations, was 58,159. But as horrific as that body count is, it’s really just the tip of the iceberg. During the 16 years in which Vietnam was being torn apart, estimates are that between 2.5 million and 5 million people were killed by diseases, famine, battles and massacres caused by the war. Maybe that’s why the Vietnam Veterans Memorial State Park honors U.S. veterans but remembers the bigger picture as well. In the chapel, Marine Corp. 1st Lt. David Westphall’s photo remains in the center of a line of photos of U.S. soldiers killed in Vietnam. It’s a memorial display the Westphalls placed in the back of the chapel, but Victor Westphall reportedly said of the display, “If I found out that the person who had killed my son had in turn been killed, I would put his photo in the chapel.” Park literature also relates a story about Victor Westphall’s trip to Vietnam in 1994, to visit the site where his son was killed. Before he left, he took a handful of soil from the memorial park, then scattered it at the site where David Westphall had died. Then he took a handful of Vietnam soil and returned it to New Mexico. “The two soil samples looked identical,” the information states. That’s the way the world can be. So on this Memorial Day, let’s not just honor those who gave their lives, let’s also remember those who lost a loved one in war — in the hope that a few of our national wounds might heal.