Vietnam Veterans Memorial turns 30
by Chaplain Robert Certain, Executive Director
The iconic Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Mall in Washington DC was officially opened and dedicated on November 13, 1982. Its haunting magnetic power has drawn millions of visitors and spawned a number of traveling walls that take its presence to millions more who have not made a pilgrimage to the sacred ground on which it rests.
In the months that it was under construction, I was privileged to be a member of the Agent Orange Advisory Committee and the Vietnam Veterans Leadership Program, so was able to visit the site several times and to be in the crowd on Friday, November 11. I was stunned to see grown men weeping – until I pushed my way to the apex, stood before panel 1W and saw the names of my friends who had died during Linebacker II, the air battle that resulted in a treaty and freedom for the POWs, and found tears flowing from my own eyes. What was the power of this enigmatic black wall which was initially described as an ugly gash on the nation’s memory?
Many factors work together to make this memorial an instrument of healing for this nation and for her veterans. A simple list with complex interactions:
- The site was at one time a swamp … like much of Vietnam, both literally and figuratively
- The structure is supported by underground concrete and steel pillars resting on bedrock
- The design is by Maya Lin, a Chinese American. China was an ally of North Vietnam
- The selection committee was initially looking for a more traditional memorial, but drawn back to the Lin design
- The black marble is the most reflective natural mineral on earth
- It was cut, polished and engraved in Memphis, TN – the place of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King
- The first to die have their names on panel 1E, the last on 1W, making it a circle of brotherhood
- The shape is that of a chevron, the rank of a private
- It also forms two arms, embracing all who enter the ground
- The east arm points at the center of the Capitol, the west at the center of the Lincoln Memorial, embracing the Mall, the repository of the documents and artifacts of this nation’s history and culture
- It is at ground level at both top and bottom
- Anyone looking at the names can see his or her own face reflecting back, linking the warrior to the citizen, reminding us we have an obligation to live more fully because of the lives cut short on our behalf
- Three great struggles divided this nation during the Vietnam Era: the war, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Women’s Movement. This wall makes no distinction of race, gender, rank, or place; and the statues added later to the park shows brothers and sisters working together for common goals
In the years since, whenever I am in Washington, I have usually made a visit to the Memorial to pay my respects to these heroes, to weep, and to find new strength to carry on. I have never been there alone, no matter the time of day or night. This year, I will be there again on Veterans Day. The day will begin with breakfast at the White House a few days after the reelection of President Obama. From there, I will go to Arlington National Cemetery to be part of the Veterans Day ceremonies and a wreath-laying at the Tomb of the Unknowns. A couple of days later I will strive to lead the executive committee of the Military Chaplains Association to inspire the faith communities of America to actively welcome members of our armed forces, our veterans and their families into their local congregations, and to care for them in their long road home.
The Wall stands as a symbol for us all. It calls us to stand united as a nation, to embrace our history, values, and culture for the well-being of us all, to stand tall as one nation under God to defend freedom and liberty for ourselves and for the world. May it stand forever, and may God bless America as America blesses God.