Vietnam Wall brings healing
LVN Editor Emeritus
The memorial is one of the most recognizable in our nation’s capital. What was a controversial design in the early 1980s has emerged over the years as a remembrance of the sacrifice more than 58,000 veterans gave to their country.
For many on this autumn afternoon, they saw the Vietnam Wall up close for the very first time. Others, though, have made the pilgrimage to touch names on the wall, to leave flowers and letters. Some cry. Others shake their heads. Each visit is an experience, each experience is remembering a fellow comrade, a friend or family member.
On a chilly Saturday afternoon — Veterans Day — the designer of the Vietnam Wall in Washington, D.C., offered her perspective on the wall’s dedication 35 years ago and what it still means for her.
Maya Linn was a 21-year-old student at Yale University when her design was selected over 1,441 other submissions for a memorial to honor both Vietnam War veterans who lost their lives and to act as a monument to heal the wounds of war thousands of miles from the United States. The black cut-stone masonry wall originally had 57,661 fallen soldiers carved into its face and was completed in late October 1982 and dedicated the following month The granite and V-shaped wall has one side pointing to the Lincoln Memorial and the other to the Washington Monument.
Guests at this year’s Honor Flight Nevada to the nation’s capital, which included mostly Vietnam veterans, were among several hundred who heard Linn’s remarks as well as those from other speakers including former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, who is also a Vietnam veteran, and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, a retired Navy SEAL who once trained at Naval Air Station Fallon.
Linn said the wall remembers and honors veterans who served in the Vietnam War.
“It’s hard to believe it has been 35 years since this dedication,” she said. “Almost 37 years ago, I stood here for the first time, looking at this beautiful park. I have no idea what was to come over the next two years. As did here and had a simple impulse, to cut open the earth and to polish the earth’s open sides.”
Linn said she understood the rage and pain of veterans more than a generation ago who still experienced the effects of the war.
“By creating a space that would allow a returning veteran to remember that time and although those memories would at times be emotionally charged and painful, it is only when we can honestly face that loss and that pain that we can begin to overcome it,” she continued. “That cathartic hearing process — healing process that has become so much of this space was always at the heart of this design.”
In her remarks, Linn confessed designing the wall was not an easy project for the then 21-year-old, the average age of military men and women when they served in Vietnam. She said Vietnam veterans and other contributors lent their time and ideas that resulted in congressional authorization to hold a competition for the wall’s design. At the time, her winning design was a controversial choice.
“I envision cutting open the earth and polishing its open sides, the walls would not be massive, but instead thin and light, so the names alone become the object,” she said. “That the walls would be polished to a mirror’s shine. So you see yourself reflected in the names. That the depth would be enough to offer you refuge, but not enough to become oppressive. That it had always to be of human scale, and that as you descend, the names rise of to meet you — rise up to meet you. And that you would be able to find your time on the wall, and connect with your fallen colleagues. I was intently focused on creating a work that would talk to each one of you individually, yet also to have you seem to gather as a family — seam together as a family.”
She said the memorial had to rise above the politics so that the politics of the war did not color the veterans’ service, sacrifice and loss.
Hagel said the wall was built to honor the sacrifices of more than 58,000 American servicemen and women who served in an unpopular war in a distant land. The former Army infantry squad leader who served in 1968 said the Vietnam Wall was built for future generations so they would learn from the war and how war also gave serious and lasting consequences. He reflected on the groundbreaking for the wall.
“There is no glory in war, only suffering,” he said. “With all the suffering Vietnam veterans endured and saw, they also witnessed uncommon courage and compassion. There was heroism all around, but mostly, it was that they did the job the country asked them to do. Their commitment to each other, and their individual common decency and belief in their country sustained them.”
Hagel said 3 million American served in the military during the Vietnam War. Once they returned home, he said they rebuilt their lives but not all succeeded because many struggled; furthermore, Hagel said each generation faces unique challenges.
“These challenges are not of the soldiers making,” he said. “Different times, different wars, different political currents all dictate wars and reasons for fighting wars. Every generation of Americans answered their country’s call. Today, veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, and our current service members are no different.
“Vietnam veterans answered their call and served with honor. Historians have written that the comedy equation for mankind through a history that is — that has determined the strength of societies is challenged response.”
Hagel said he felt recognition for Vietnam veterans came too late, but he told the audience to look around because that recognition is here.
“I have always believed that the greatest responsibility of leaders is to lead their institutions and those they lead better than they found it. To serve as role models,” he said. “I have often heard from our servicemen and women today from Iraq and Afghanistan that they looked to the Vietnam veterans for courage and inspiration. Vietnam veterans did serve as role models, and are now the senior statesman of the veteran’s community.”
Ryan Zinke, secretary of the Department of Interior, served as a SEAL in Iraq. He said the wall is a tribute to remembering Vietnam veterans.
“We should never run away from the history of our country,” he said. “We should learn. When I served in the seal teams for 23 years, 1985, most of my instructors were SEALs that had served in Vietnam. They cut their teeth in the jungles and the rivers. I learned a lot from those fine warriors. I have learned a lot from you, those that have fought. I’ve learned commitment, dedication, sacrifice.”
Diane Carlson Evans, founder and president of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Foundation, and Kate O’Hare-Palmer, U.S. Army Nurse Corps in Vietnam briefly spoke.
Steve Ranson is LVN’s Editor Emeritus who covers military news for the Nevada Appeal and the LVN. He traveled with a group of veterans to Washington, D.C. this month as part of Honor Flight Nevada. Ranson shares the 35th anniversary of the Vietnam Wall.