” It was as if a common emotion held back in so many private corners was all at once coming out into the sunlight. I cried too, more than once…As I stood in front of the polished granite I saw the names, but I also saw my own reflection. It fell across the names like a ghost. “Why me, lord?” we asked ourselves in Vietnam. It was a question that came back as I stood there: “why them?” “
– William Broyles Jr. on his first impressions of the Vietnam Memorial Wall.
The Vietnam Memorial Wall
The Vietnam Memorial Wall opened on today’s date – November 13 in 1982. The Vietnam War had been a truly harrowing experience for America. We had been a nation who in Patton’s famous words had never and would never lose a war. When the general said that in the 1940’s it was true. But then came Korea. In that war, which was called a “police action”, the nation got her first taste of war fought to a political standoff. No Declaration, no Peace Treaty, no glorious parade of the returning victorious
troops. Americans had (with a great many UN allies) fought, been wounded and died, and the end result was a political stand-off at the 45’th parallel of the Korean Peninsula. Vietnam was even worse. There was still no declaration, and no peace treaty, there had been riots and political un-rest at home,draft dodgers in Canada, many men and women killed and wounded, and to top it all off, we had been treated to the spectacle of an American helicopter departing from the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon while the enemy came pouring through the streets. For the nation, it just didn’t get any worse than that. We wanted to forget it.
The Controversy Over the Vietnam Memorial Wall
Unfortunately for the men and women who went to the war, and who had bravely fought, or otherwise been involved – whether in support or medical units, the war had indeed been a lot worse, and they couldn’t forget it. And nor should they have had to forget it. But to many of them, it seemed that they had been forgotten. The war in which they had sacrificed so very much had indeed been controversial, and in the end very unpopular. But the service people who had done their duty and gone to serve were hardly to blame for that. Nevertheless, they encountered apathy, turned heads and in many cases outright hostility if they appeared in public in uniform. Many Vietnam vets spoke of being spat upon, and being called “baby killer”. Happily, with the passing of time this public attitude began to change. Awareness of the Vietnam Veterans, the sacrifices they made, and the difficulties they faced began to spread. And eventually plans for a memorial to them were begun.
The Choice of Maya Lin
The choice for the winning design proved to be almost as controversial as the war itself had been. The architect, was one Maya Lin (right), a Yale University architecture student who had been born in Ohio in 1959. The daughter of Chinese immigrants, Ms. Lin’s seemed to many an odd choice. America’s national boob, H. Ross Perot, even went so far as to dismiss Ms. Lin as “an egg roll”. Her design was a black granite wall dug into the ground in a large “V” shape, and inscribed with the names of those who had been killed in action during the war, or who had later died as a result of such wounds. To many (including at the time, this author), the design seemed stark and sterile. The “V” shape struck still others as reminiscent of the two-fingered “peace” sign so popular amongst those who demonstrated against the war. And many veterans’ groups were opposed to Lin’s winning design because it lacked the more traditional memorials heroic statues and stirring words.
“The Wall” Becomes a Place for Healing
But once the memorial opened a remarkable change in public attitude toward the Memorial, the veterans, even to some extent to the war itself began to be felt. The war, how ever unpopular, began to be seen as having been fought for decent motivations. The veterans came at long last to be seen as the heroes that they were. The Wall itself became the center of healing for that huge, gaping wound that the war had wrent upon our national psyche. It became a place for quiet reflection and soul searching. And the Vietnam Memorial Wall became a place where, thank God, the veterans could finally begin to let go of their grief. And I, for one am thankful for this, and am so very glad that my doubts were proven unfounded.
The Mementos Left at “The Wall”
People began to leave little
remembrances of those they had lost at the wall itself. Bouquets of flowers, bottles of wine, pictures, cigarettes, knives, baseballs, even a pair of panties are among the mementos of lives cut short that have been left. The National Park Service which oversees the Wall and its maintenance regularly collects these items and places them in storage. Among these items are a great many letters, a few of which are quoted below:
On a piece of paper with the familiar three pointed peace sign:
“Dear Ralph, I’d like you to know that you are well remembered. I don’t (remember) you well, but I am very close with you. Your buddies didn’t let you down they still love you. I remember you with honor and bravery.”
On a postal service routing slip:
“I was with you and I hope I made a difference. Twenty five years later my heart is still empty and broken. God how I miss you.
– Frank W. Spehr, Sgt., USMC, 2169323.”
On a paper lunch bag:
“Dear Mr. Kerry, Sorry this is so sloppy. I’m on a bus for a field trip to Washington D.C. I noticed that your birthday is on the same day as mine. You were born on March 14, 1947, but I’m sure you already know that. I was born on March 14, 1978. I will be sure to celebrate yours as well as my birthday on that day. I will pray for you and perhaps I will meet you in heaven some day. I will wait until then. On March 14 every year I will celebrate you. I will keep you in my prayers.
Love in Christ, Becca Raub.”
On a card with A Vietnam Service Ribbon attached:
“If you want to know about the women and how good they were, don’t waste your time reading books…. just ask the men.
– Jeff Kanner, USMC Vietnam, 12/66 – 12/67.”
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