Today, I am paying homage at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial while I visit Washington, D.C. From the Lincoln Memorial I walk northeast, eventually arriving at two diverging paths.
A stand of trees grabs my attention. The ground is covered with lilyturf (Liriope) and edged by iron stakes strung with chain loosely threaded, which marks the sidewalk and directs my footsteps. Across the grass, I see people standing on an interior space in the face of two long, dark granite walls sitting almost perpendicular to each other and connected at the highest point.
In Your Bucket Because . . .
- A visit to Washington, D.C. will include the National Mall.
- The Vietnam era made a significant impact to your life.
- You want to leave a tribute at the Vietnam Memorial Wall.
- You are a student of American history.
Bronzes Honoring Soldiers
The bronzes were commissioned to tie the landscape of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial with the Vietnam Wall. Before I reach the wall itself, I come upon “The Three Soldiers,” a life-size statue set under a canopy of branches. In a city bathed in history, a city that commemorates every moment of note and attracts visitors from everywhere, this seemed a corner of solemn, deafening quiet.
The height of the bronze statue makes it possible for me to stare into their faces. The figures represent Marine and Army soldiers, and I take in every detail. The resemblance to the jungle dress of the day is uncanny: Though I was never a soldier, several of my family fought in Vietnam. My eyes immediately focus on the boonie hat, once so popular with Army grunts: I recognize it because one was unpacked from duffle bags brought home, the smell of war still hanging on its brim.
A Vietnam Women’s Memorial, which depicts Army nurses helping an injured male soldier, stands nearby. The statue is a tribute to women who fought in Vietnam but were not officially recognized as “in combat.” The names of the women; Hope, Faith and Charity are symbolic and not a depiction of any specific soldier who participated in the war.
The pathway I chose has finally led me to the Vietnam Wall. It’s a stunningly simple concept that was both unique and controversial when it was proposed by 21-year old Yale University architecture student Maya Ying Lin, who entered the design in a competition.
The two walls are set at an angle, at their height a little more than 10’ tall, but gradually tapering to the ground on each end.The points direct a visitor’s gaze toward the Washington Monument on one end and the Lincoln Memorial on the other. Each wall has 72 panels, inscribed with name after name after name after name.
The Vietnam Wall honors the 2.7 million men and women who served as United States soldiers in the Vietnam War. In 2010, of the 58,272 names listed, approximately 1200 had MIA or POW status.
At first I do not see the “park-like” setting Lin hoped for, described in writings about her wishes for the memorial. I feel cold and unprotected and I only see the woods off in the distance, from where I came.
In front, a narrow brick sidewalk leaves space for mementos and tributes. There is nothing like the Harley motorcycle I had heard was brought to remember a loved one, though there are many flower bouquets, in various stages of decay, and a soft stuffed toy propped up against the hard surface. But, I spy a pair of jungle boots. I stop to ask a park ranger about that kind of boot and he reminded me that jungle boots were not brought home from the war.
Visitors may make pencil rubbings of names but there is no name of a soldier I know here. I stop to read names because I do not want them to be forgotten; it is the only tribute I have brought with me. My reflection is in the shiny surface of the black stone and in the image, over my shoulder, I realize the trees are, indeed, protecting the Wall of names.
- The National Mall and Memorial Parks are free to visit.
- Walking shoes are the best footwear.
- Use the Hop-On-Hop-Off Open-Top Double-Decker Bus System for an overall tour — as well as to get from one stop to the next. It is a fun ride and saves time.
- In paper or electronic form, keep a map of the city with you: With traffic circles, angled streets, and one-way roads, Washington can be challenging for a first timer to navigate.