Honoring the Vietnam War Memorial Names
I’ve walked through Washington, DC more times than I can remember. I lived quite close to the nation’s capital for over a decade, and in my time there, I visited almost every existing historical site and museum, but nothing struck me more than the first time I saw the Vietnam War Memorial when I was nine: two jet-black stone walls rising up out of the ground to form a “V,” and thousands of white names printed in perfect lines across the black background. I remember running my fingers across the lettering as if touching the white stenciling would somehow let me touch those soldiers, feel their lives, hear their final thoughts when they left this earth. But they were just letters. I felt nothing but stone.
In the years following my first experience seeing the wall, I returned several times with visiting family and friends. I learned more about what the Vietnam War actually was and what those names really meant. I learned the controversies over the war and heard various history teachers ask “who was right?” As I learned more, I grew more conflicted over that question, but I think it was the wrong question to ask. In the end, what matters most are those names. I think my nine-year-old self was onto something by wanting to understand the sacrifice of so many fallen soldiers that I never knew and believing that I could somehow tell them I was there at that wall, thinking about them.
History of the Vietnam War Memorial Wall
This historic Vietnam War Memorial Wall, which receives around 3 million visitors every year, is located northeast of the Lincoln Memorial. 58,286 names are listed there in chronological order of casualty date. Construction of the Wall was completed in 1982, 7 years after the war ended. Maya Lin (an American architect) designed the structure, which ranked as number 10 on the “List of America’s Favorite Architecture.” The structure has been the source of some controversy, and in response to a few concerns, additional structures were constructed around the memorial to recognize others who were not named on the Wall but still sacrificed for the Vietnam War.
The Vietnam War Memorial actually consists of three more structures in addition to the Wall of Names. The Three Servicemen is a statue depicting a European American soldier, an African American soldier, and a Hispanic American soldier. This statue is placed a short distance away from the wall, and the soldiers appear to be gazing at the names on it in sorrow for their lost comrades. The Women’s Memorial is another statue that depicts two nurses tending a soldier. This memorial is located between the Wall and the reflecting pool and represents the importance of women in war. There is also a memorial plaque located northeast of the Three Servicemen. It is 2 feet by 3 feet, and it honors all veterans who suffered injuries in Vietnam and then died after the war because of them.
More Than Just a Name
Rubbing: Descendants, friends, distant relations, and comrades go to the Wall to find the name of their service member who died in Vietnam. Once they find the name among all the thousands, they hold up a sheet of paper to the name and rub crayon (or graphite pencil) over it to get a rubbing of the name to keep as a personal memorial to that soldier.
Leaving Objects: Since the Vietnam memorial’s construction, it has been a tradition to leave significant objects at the base of the wall. After these objects have been here for a time, the National Park Service collects them and sends them to the NPS Museum Resource Center where they are cataloged.
Holiday Decoration: On holidays like Christmas and Memorial Day, visitors will come and put ornaments and other appropriate decorations at the base of the Wall.
The Vietnam War Memorial wall has helped so many families get a sense of closure. The Vietnam war has been over for forty years now but the Vietnam War Memorial Names will never be forgotten.