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After 25 years, the Wall still speaks to vets
Scripps Howard Foundation Wire


November 12, 2007
Monday AM

A glance at the Wall
Scripps Howard Foundation Wire

Left at the Wall

Visitors who have walked the path and searched for familiar names among the 58,256 etched into the granite have also left tens of thousands of items behind, usually flags, letters or photos.

But a few objects stand out, even for Jan Scruggs, president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.

An American soldier once left a photo of a North Vietnamese soldier with his daughter. He had shot and killed the soldier while marching through the jungle, then found the photo on the body. Years after the war and with Scruggs' help, the soldier flew back to Vietnam and met the girl in the photo.

Families have also left a handcrafted Harley Davidson motorcycle, a pair of white prom shoes and a Medal of Honor, left in 1988 to protest the U.S. government's involvement with the Contras in Nicaragua.

Some of those objects will be on display at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Center, a $60 million underground museum that will be built across the street from the Wall. Crews are expected to break ground in 2010 and construction should last 18 months.

The Design

Scruggs and other organizers had four requirements for the memorial. It had to be reflective and contemplative; harmonize with its surroundings; contain the names of those who died or were missing and presumed dead; and make no political statement.

More than 1,400 designers entered a design competition. Veterans, architects and artists narrowed the field to a handful of entries.

At the end of the anonymous design competition, jurors selected an entry by Maya Lin, a 21-year-old architecture student at Yale University. Lin entered the contest as an assignment for a mortuary-design class and was suddenly thrust into a national debate about politics and art.

Her age as well as her Chinese heritage incensed some veterans groups.

Other veterans found the V-shaped design itself distasteful, comparing it to a "scar" or calling it "death-oriented" and "unheroic," partly because it lacked traditional patriotic elements. The U.S. Commission of Fine Arts ordered the addition of a statue of three soldiers and a flagpole as a compromise.

Today, few visitors protest the design. Lin envisioned the Wall as an abstraction, instead of the conventional white marble statue. She chose the reflective black granite because it brings the past and the present together, as visitors see the names etched upon their own image.

"Before it was built, people really couldn't appreciate it," Scruggs said. "Once it was built, the controversy became a footnote to history."

Quick facts about the names:

Youngest: a 15-year-old
Oldest: a 62-year-old
Number of 16-year-olds on the Wall: five
Number of 17-year-olds: 12
Number of foreign nationals: 120
Number of countries they represent: 22
Veterans killed on their first day in Vietnam: 997
Veterans killed on their last day in Vietnam: 1,448
Number of women on the Wall: seven
Number of father-son pairs on the Wall: two

WASHINGTON -- The first two Americans to die in the Vietnam conflict. The first of 58,000 more to come.

Retired generals, veterans, mothers, daughters, sons and widows began reading each of the 58,256 names etched on the black granite of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Wednesday, part of the memorial's 25th-anniversary celebration.

"The names have become the memorial," said Jan Scruggs, the veteran who in 1979 started pushing for the creation of the Wall. He is the president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.

Nearly 2,000 volunteers spent 65 hours through Saturday reading each name in chronological order, only the fourth time it has been done since the Wall's dedication on Nov. 13, 1982, when the names were first read across town at the National Cathedral.

"We are making the time to pay respect," said retired Brig. Gen. George Price, one of the men who helped settle the controversy surrounding the memorial's design in 1981. At his suggestion, a statue of three soldiers and a flagpole were added to the site.

Before this week, Vietnam veteran Bob Grimm had seen only pictures of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

The Waynesville, Ohio, resident served in the Air Force in Vietnam in 1966 and '67, though his military career stretched until 1984. This week, the retired tech sergeant decided it was finally the right time to visit some old friends.

Slowly climbing the pathway toward the end of the V-shaped memorial, where the Wall shrinks from 10 feet at its peak to 8 inches, Grimm called it "sobering."

"It's awesome to see all the guys," he said, his eyes red from tears.

Even after 25 years, the Wall packs an emotional punch.

The usual bustle of the monument stilled when a bugler played taps before the name-reading ceremony Wednesday. Schoolchildren, families, spectators and passersby paused for the somber piece, everyone's gaze fixed on the Wall.

Then Hank Cramer, Harry Cramer's son, read the first two names on the Wall -- his father's and that of another man, who died in 1956 and 1957. He was followed by author Stanley Karnow, who covered the conflict for Time magazine and wrote a definitive book about the war; Gordon Mansfield, Department of Veterans Affairs acting secretary; Mary Jane Kiepe, Gold Star Mothers president; and retired Gen. Joe Ralston, former commander of NATO forces.

Mansfield spoke earlier in the ceremony about the immense importance of the Wall, both as a means for the nation to heal after the divisive conflict and as a way to ensure that the soldiers who died will not be lost to history.

"As long as this Wall stands, they will always be remembered," he said.

For Scruggs, the monument has already remained far more culturally significant than he imagined in 1982.

"We thought the memorial would be a big draw initially, but that then it would become a fraternal thing," Scruggs said at a Wednesday news conference.

He envisioned that, five or 10 years after construction, the only visitors would have served in the military or otherwise had a personal connection to one of the names on the Wall. Instead, more than 4 million people visit each year.

"This has changed the way America mourns, changed the way the public deals with trauma," he said.


On the Web:

To find out more about the Wall and the names, go to



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