Snow and ice carpet the ground, making walking especially hazardous. Yet thousands have come on this cold January day to see the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Each year, more than 2.5 million people visit the site, located just north of the Lincoln Memorial, ranking it among the most popular tourist attractions in Washington.
For many, the monument's shimmering black panels - containing the names of the more than 58,000 American men and women who died in Vietnam - symbolize the nation's efforts to come to grips with one of the most divisive chapters in its history.
“This place is an important national symbol, like the Statue of Liberty,” says John R. Gifford, 43, a Westport, Mass., police officer who was making his second visit to the memorial.
But, Gifford says, the “Wall” is more than just a symbol. It has deep personal meaning for those who lived during the Vietnam era - especially those who fought or lost a loved one in the war. “You can see how hard it is when folks who have lost someone near and dear to them in Vietnam come here,” he says.
The monument contains 140 slabs of black granite quarried in India The names are inscribed in chronological order, begin-ning with the first American casualty in 1959 and ending with those who died in 1975, the year South Vietnam fell.
Designed by a 21-year-old architecture student, the once-controversial Vietnam Veterans Memorial contains the names of the more than 58,000 Americans killed in Vietnam. (Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund)
The Wall consists of two sections, each 246 feet long, that meet at a 125-degree angle, forming a wide V. The height of the wall rises from just a foot, at each end, to about 10 feet at the point where the sections meet.
The design by Maya Lin, a young architecture student, was controversial when she proposed it almost two decades ago. Many veterans wanted a more traditional war monument - with statues of soldiers. But Lin wanted the memorial to be “a quiet place, meant for personal reflection and private reckoning.” When submitting her design in 1981, she wrote: “The actual area is wide and shallow, allowing for a sense of privacy, and the sunlight from the memorial's southern exposure, along with the grassy park surrounding and within its walls, contribute to the serenity of the area. Thus, this memorial is for those who have died, and for us to remember them.”
To mollify the critics, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF) in 1982 commissioned the late Frederick Hart, a noted Washington, D.C., sculptor, to create a traditional statue to accompany Lin's design. Sited just a few feet from the Wall, it depicts three rifle-carrying infantrymen - a white, a black and a Hispanic.
Judging by the streams of visitors to the Wall, and the solemnity that envelops it, Lin's concept was sound. “This is such a solemn place,” says Mark Yanick, a 37-year-old human resources trainer from Washington, D.C., who had brought an out-of-town friend to see the Wall. “This is the only monument I've ever been to where there is total silence, even when it's crowded.”
The memorial is the brainchild of Jan C. Scruggs, an infantryman who was wounded in Vietnam. Scruggs conceived of the idea for a memorial after watching Michael Chamino's “The Deer Hunter,” a troubling 1979 film about the tortured lives of a group of returning Vietnam vets. “After I made the decision that we needed something like this, I became obsessed with it,” he says.
Along with other veterans from “Nam,” Scruggs formed the VVMF in 1979 to raise money and find a location and design for the memorial. The project came together with remarkable speed. Within a few years, they had raised more than $8 million from private sources, including more than 275,000 individuals. In 1980, Congress provided two acres on the Mall for the memorial.
That year, the VVMF held a design competition. Lin, then a 21-year-old student at Yale University, bested the 1,421 entries submitted, many by some of the world's leading architects. Construction began in March 1982, and in November the memorial was dedicated.
“We figured that a lot of people would come the first year because it would be a novelty, but after that it would just be something for the vets,” Scruggs says. “Now it's a symbol to the nation, much like the Eiffel Tower is the symbol of France.”