Healing Nature of Vietnam Veterans Memorial Thirty Years Later


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Thirty years after the anniversary of the opening of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial  in Washington, D.C., in November of 1982, most of the critics have been quieted by the warm reception the memorial has received over time.

The memorial currently consists of three separate parts: the Three Soldiers statue, the Vietnam Women's Memorial, and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.

The main part of the memorials is in Constitution Gardens adjacent to the National Mall, just northeast of the Lincoln Memorial. The memorial is maintained by the U.S. National Park Service, and approximately 3 million people visit it each year.  The Memorial Wall was designed by American architect Maya Lin (pictured above). In 2007, it was ranked tenth on the "List of America's Favorite Architecture" by the American Institute of Architects.

Architect Maya Lin, who was 21 when she won the design contest that envisioned the memorial, told  Washington Post writer Phil McCombs about how she conceived the design."I thought about what death is, what a loss is. A sharp pain that lessens with time, but can never quite heal over.  A scar. The idea occurred to me there on the site. Take a knife and cut open the earth, and with time the grass would heal it. As if you cut open the rock and polished it."

"Andy (Maya Lin's Yale professor) said, you have to make the angle mean something. And I wanted the names in chronological order because to hone the living as well as the dead it had to be a sequence in time."

One panel of 'The Wall', displaying some of the names of fallen U.S. service members from the Vietnam War.

MAya LinRobert F. Howe, writes on Smithsonian.com, “ Never has a wall—a structure that divides—done so much to unite. Its power to create a common ground, to stir deep emotions and even to heal (to use that overused word) is difficult to pinpoint. But the Wall has certainly played a profound role in our national life, and its impact has not diminished since its unveiling, after much controversy…It is one of the most visited monuments in Washington, D.C., drawing about four million people annually, and is arguably our most compelling shrine….From architects, artists and experts, the Wall has summoned superlatives. Christopher Knight, art critic for the Los Angeles Times, declared …that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is the “greatest aesthetic achievement in an American public monument in the 20th century.

“The story of the monument is inseparable from that of its artistic creator, Maya Lin, who was a mere 21-year-old undergraduate when her design was chosen, in 1981, out of a field of more than a thousand proposals. Though she did no research on the Vietnam War prior to creating her design—she didn’t want to be swayed by politics—Lin sensed that Americans were still in pain. She believed they yearned for a proper setting from which to reflect on the consequences of that torturous engagement and to mourn the lives that were lost. “I was trying to come to some understanding of mourning and grieving,” Lin recalls. “We as Americans are more afraid of death and aging than many other cultures—we don’t want to accept it or deal with it. So when the memorial was under construction, the reaction was, ‘It’s too subtle, it’s too personal, I don’t get this, it won’t work.’ But the fact that it does work may say something about what the American public really needed."

Read more:"Monumental Achievement" by Robert F. Howe at Smithsonian.com.

Soldier at Vietnam Memorial WallInscribed on the walls with the Optima typeface are the names of servicemen who were either confirmed to be KIA (Killed in Action) or remained classified as MIA (Missing in Action) when the walls were constructed in 1982. They are listed in chronological order.

Symbolically, this is described as a "wound that is closed and healing." Information about rank, unit and decorations are not given. The wall listed 58,191 names when it was completed in 1983; as of May 2011, there are 58,272 names, including 8 women. Approximately 1,200 of these are listed as missing (MIAs, POWs, and others), denoted with a cross; the confirmed dead are marked with a diamond.

  The Soldiers by Frederick HartA short distance away from the wall is another Vietnam memorial, a bronze statue named The Three Soldiers (sometimes called The Three Servicemen). Negative reactions to Lin's design created a controversy. As a result,  Frederick Hart (who had placed third in the original design competition) was commissioned to produce a bronze figurative sculpture in the heroic tradition. Opponents of Lin's design had hoped to place this sculpture of three soldiers at the apex of the wall's two sides. Lin objected strenuously to this, arguing that this would make the soldiers the focal point of the memorial, and her wall a mere backdrop.

A compromise was reached, and the sculpture was placed off to one side. The statue, which was unveiled in 1984, depicts three soldiers, purposefully identifiable as White American, African American, and Hispanic American. In their final arrangement, the statue and the Wall appear to interact with each other, with the soldiers looking on in solemn tribute at the names of their fallen comrades.

A memorial plaque, authorized, was dedicated on November 10, 2004, at the northeast corner of the plaza surrounding the Three Soldiers statue to honor veterans who died after the war as a direct result of injuries suffered in Vietnam, but who fall outside Department of Defense guidelines. The plaque is a carved block of black granite, 3 feet by 2 feet  and inscribed "In memory of the men and women who served in the Vietnam War and later died as a result of their service. We honor and remember their sacrifice."

Many publicly voiced their displeasure, calling the wall "a black gash of shame." Two prominent early supporters of the project, H. Ross Perot and  former Virginia Senator James Webb, a decorated Vietnam vet, withdrew their support once they saw the design.

Vietnam veteran John Devitt of Stockton, California, attended the 1982 dedication ceremonies of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Recognizing what he saw as the healing nature of the Wall, he vowed to make a transportable version of the Wall, a "Traveling Wall" so those who were not able to travel to Washington, D.C. would be able to see and touch the names of friends or loved ones in their own home town.

Using personal finances, Devitt founded Vietnam Combat Veterans, Ltd. With the help of friends, the half-size replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, named The Moving Wall, was built and first put on display to the public in Tyler, Texas, in 1984.

The Moving Wall visits hundreds of small towns and cities throughout the U.S., staying five or six days at each site. Local arrangements for each visit are made months in advance by veterans' organizations and other civic groups. Thousands of people all over the US volunteered their time and money to help honor the fallen.

As the wall moves from town to town on interstates, it is often escorted by state troopers and up to thousands of local citizens on motorcycles. Many of these are Patriot Guard Riders, who consider escorting The Moving Wall to be a "special mission," which is coordinated on their website. As it passes towns, even when it is not planning a stop in those towns, local veterans organizations sometimes plan for local citizens to gather by the highway and across overpasses to wave flags and salute the Wall.

Items left in memory of soldiers at Vietnam Veterans Memorial.Visitors to the memorial began leaving sentimental items at the memorial at its opening. One story claims that this practice began during construction, when a Vietnam veteran threw the Purple Heart his brother received posthumously into the concrete of the memorial's foundation. Several thousand items are left at the memorial each year.

Items left at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial are collected by National Park Service employees and transferred to the NPS Museum and Resource Center, which catalogs and stores all items except perishable organic matter (such as live flowers) and unaltered U.S. flags. The flags are redistributed through various channels.

From 1992 to 2003, selected items from the collection were placed on exhibit, at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History as "Personal Legacy: The Healing of a Nation."

Visit your local library for these resources:

Always to Remember: The Story of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
by Brent K. Ashabranner, (1989).

Their Names to Live: What the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Means to America
by  Brent K. Ashabranner, (1998).

Offerings at the Wall: Artifacts from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Collection
by  Thomas B. Allen, (1995).
The first offering to the Wall, a Purple Heart thrown into the monument’s cement as it was being poured, presaged the medals, insignia, MIA bracelets, bullet casings, photographs, and flags from coffins that survivors have left at the Vietnam monument. Each night the items are warehoused and cataloged; this album portrays a sample of the 30,000 objects commended to the dead thus far. — Excerpt of review by Gilbert Taylor First published June 1, 1995 (Booklist).

Monument wars : Washington, D.C., the National Mall, and the transformation of the memorial landscape
by  Kirk Savage, (2009).

The National Mall : rethinking Washington's monumental core
by  Nathan Glazer and Cynthia R Field, (2008).

To heal a nation : the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
by  Jan C Scruggs and Joel L Swerdlow, (1985).




Names of Vietnam veterans at Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. by Hu Totya.

A Marine at Vietnam Memorial on 4th July 2002
by Meutia Chaerani - Indradi Soemardjan.

The Soldiers (bronze statue)by Frederick Hart

John Nugent, Vietnam veteran, plays the bagpipes as a part of the opening ceremony at the Dignity Memorial Vietnam Wall at Mt. Trashmore Park.

Various items left at 'The Wall'.
Vietnam Veterans Memorial by Kelvin Kay.

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