Feeling the names of the fallen

November 8, 2012

Washington, D.C.

By Gary Cameron

There’s an old military adage, which seems to follow more fact than fiction, that if you arrive 15 minutes BEFORE your scheduled starting time, you are late.

Given that, I found myself attempting to find the walkway to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington 30 minutes before the volunteers from the Vietnam Veterans of America local chapter 641 arrived at 06:00 for a weekly cleaning of the black granite and grounds.

There was low-level illumination from ground lights – it was not enough. I have been here numerous times before.

Walking down the entry sidewalk in nearly pitch black conditions, I know the names on “The Wall” are directly next to me on the right. I can feel them; honestly, I can.

At first, the feeling was disconcerting. After a few seconds though, I settled down. In the quiet blackness, I felt comforted being there, even though all the souls around me are gone.

Architectural designer and artist Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial was one of 1,421 anonymous national entries submitted in 1981 to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund which oversaw the judging. At the time, she was a 21-year old Yale undergrad. Initially, Lin’s winning design was highly controversial because it threw convention, and Washington, D.C.’s obsession with white marble, out the window.

Gallery: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Her stark design went INTO the ground and did not stand above it. There were no faces, and no soldiers atop prancing horses. Just names etched in granite. Lots and lots and lots of names.

She designated black granite instead of white marble. (The black granite used is from Bangalore, India, one of three places on earth where it can be obtained in the large sizes needed. Sweden and South Africa are the others.)

The viewers of the memorial would be face to face with the 58,272 names of the fatalities from the Vietnam conflict, which also included Laos and Cambodia and coastal areas.

You could, if time permitted, read every name of the people killed in one of the United States’ most controversial military actions that are etched on panels. And if you couldn’t find the names, numerous booklets in covered stands had them listed alphabetically by the memorial’s panels. You would walk down into the earth to view it.

This, coupled with Lin’s Asian heritage, (her parents immigrated from China in 1949 and settled in Ohio in 1958, a year before their daughter’s birth), caused an uproar.

Lin had to defend her design before the U.S. Congress. A compromise was reached, and sculptor Frederick Hart’s “The Three Soldiers,” was to be installed 150 feet away from “The Wall”. Hart, who had come in third in the original judging, had his “The Three Solders” installed in 1984 with a flagpole flying the nation’s colors.

In 1993, the Vietnam Women’s Memorial was dedicated on the same grounds. As haunting as Hart’s “Three Soldiers” eyes are as they look towards “The Wall”, Glenna Goodacre’s statue of three Vietnam-era nurses surrounding a seriously-wounded soldier truly illustrates compassion, loss and the sacrifice these women made.

Here we are, 30 years later, and Maya Lin’s stunning and stark design has stood up quite well, thank you. People slowly walk by, either looking up, or down, searching for names. They smile, they cry, they pause. A piece of paper and a pencil are all that are needed for copying the names to take home. I think they find comfort here. Everyone is listed here; not just a group effort.

Family members, sons and daughters, husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, cousins, friends, all look for the names that brought them to Washington. Mementos are left behind; dog tags, boots, flags, wreaths, letters, notes and flowers. For a war that divided America, we still want to remember, and not forget those who perished – no matter what the shape, form, or color of the memorial.

Every Saturday, from May to November, volunteers from various veteran’s organizations gather before the crowds appear to clean “The Wall.” A leaf blower starts the process, followed by the granite and walkways being hosed down. Once wet, soft scrub brushes soaked in soapy water are used to wash “The Wall.” Another long rinse from the hoses removes the suds. Wind and air currents finish the drying process. All of this is done in quiet reverence with limited, hushed conversations. Those helping out are former military, current military, civilians and some with Southeast Asian ancestry.

Even if I had not spent a year in Vietnam, (and a very lucky, quiet, uneventful year at that), “The Wall” would still rank as one of my most inspirational sites in Washington. No disrespect to any of the others, but there is something about a memorial from an era of protest, civil unrest and national division that just makes sense. Maya Lin probably didn’t plan it that way, and I’m sorry she received so much unwarranted grief over her design. It is a stunning place to reflect, literally, on what war and conflict do to a nation. The 58,272 names and lost lives in black granite accomplish this.

Where will the memorial be for the veterans lost in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars be placed? What will it’s design and location convey? Will it unite, comfort and heal? Will it show the exhausting extended tours, the incredible amount of arms and legs lost from bombs, the time lost and never replaced with a soldier’s family? Will it come close to explaining why we were there?

2 comments

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Thank you Gary. I want to fully endorse the thoughts and concerns of the last paragraph. I sincerely hope the lessons we learned from the Vietnam memorial, that it brought all together to support veterans, will be the lasting lesson for any memorial for Iraq and Afganistan vets. Our most loving commitment MUST be a strong VA support for their health in the future, and a commitment that they can translate their experience into good jobs when they come home.

Posted by joegardella | Report as abusive

Thank You Gary! My friend Steve and I just returned from a 51 day journey to bring awareness to veteran’s causes and concerns and we spent several days in Washington DC and at “The Wall”. Although it was not our first visit, it was a especially moving one as we did a lot of name etchings for the first time. Steve is a Vietnam Veteran and 23 of those name mean the world to him especially. It was the first time he was able to do the etchings. It has taken years of healing to reach this point and as you said, there is something special and sacred about being there that promotes healing of its own. Thank you again for this piece, we look forward to more like it. It is from such stories that the world gains knowledge and awareness. Our journey, and your piece, can only bring light to the past and hope that in the present and future we can learn to change or correct our mistakes.

Posted by julie4104 | Report as abusive