a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Vietnam Wall, "It affects you."

In honor of Veterans Day tomorrow, let's revisit a story from 2002 in the Observer-Reporter when the Vietnam Veterans Memorial marked its 20th birthday.

By Scott Beveridge

WASHINGTON, D.C. – An older man focuses on the name of a fallen soldier on the sprawling Vietnam Veterans Memorial and his lower lip quivers.

He begins to cry and disappears into a mass of tourists passing the somber, black granite honor roll otherwise known as "The Wall" in the nation's capital.

"People break down all the time," National Park Service volunteer Allen McCabe said last weekend, when the crowds here begin to increase in size each year as Memorial Day approaches.

"I'm still in awe of the emotion here, how tough it is for the vets to come to grips," said McCabe, 47, who wasn't old enough during the Vietnam War to chance being drafted for service.

This memorial seems to evoke as many different reactions as the number of names it contains, said park ranger Sonya Berger, who was born a year before Saigon fell in 1975 and 16 years after the first American died in Vietnam.

"There are a lot of different images," Berger said.

Some visitors, she said, feel like they are descending into a tomb as they walk down the slight hill and past the seemingly endless list of names of those who were killed or missing in action. The back of the highly polished granite is buried in the earth; a possible explanation for the impression that this is a graveyard.

"It's one of the quietest spots," Berger said, noting that the city's hectic Constitution Avenue is less than a block away, but no one can hear the traffic.

Still, it takes some Vietnam veterans three or four years to take the short walk from the street to the memorial and its 140, side-by-side panels, she said.

But these days, the place has gone from a grim reminder of the United States' only military defeat to a place for healing, she added.

When the honor roll was new in 1982, it drew first-time visitors who showed "a lot of raw emotion," Berger said. Since then, it seems to have lost some of its reverence, she said, as the generation that came of age during this war is now finding "some sort of closure."

Many of the 4.5 million visitors who are now drawn to the site each year were born after the war ended.

Some schoolchildren giggle along its narrow walkway and ask the obvious questions: "How many names are on the wall?" and "How do you find someone's name?"

Park rangers politely say the wall lists 58,235 names, which also can be found in location directories the size of big-city telephone books at both entrances.

But politeness isn't always the norm at what also has become the stage for political statements, even though its artist, Maya Ying Lin, was told not to make any in her design.

Berger said in the weeks before President Bush led the nation March 19 into the Iraq war, the memorial drew both anti- and pro-war demonstrators.

"It was probably my most interesting experience here," Berger said. Those who opposed fighting viewed the huge number of names on the wall as an argument to avoid another war, she said. At the same time, pro-war activists saw the honor roll as a source of military pride and heroism.

"It's still incredibly political," Berger said.

Other visitors, meanwhile, are haunted by the sight of a mirror image of themselves when they look between the spaces separating the names.

Jeanne Svikhart of Washington, D.C., said when she sees herself in the wall, it causes her to relive the past. "You don't want to go there," she said. "The power of the names. It personalizes all the individuals. It affects you."

Her companion, Kathy Potter of California, said she, too, looks at the honor roll "sort of not wanting to see myself."

"It's just very moving, said Potter, formerly of Pittsburgh. "Look at all these names. War is hell," she said before leaving.

A short distance from where the women pause, a group of U.S. Military Academy alumni places a wreath in memory of a classmate, Robert E. Olson of Wheeling, W.Va., who was killed in South Vietnam in 1970 when he was 19.

An unknown visitor earlier left a stack of five dimes nearby along the outer edge of the sidewalk on this rainy Sunday morning.

"Those dimes meant something to the guys who were over there," said William Miller, 69, a Vietnam veteran from Denver, Colo., who was with the West Point graduates.

"People are in a difficult situation (in war), in close combat out of the area, and they build bonds," Miller said.

Later in the day, another stranger places a bracelet once worn to honor those missing in action, broken in two pieces, over a sealed envelope in the small trough along the base of the memorial.

In all, nearly 25,000 keepsakes have been dropped off here in the past two decades, some before it even took shape.

A Vietnam veteran tossed his Purple Heart into wet concrete as it was being poured into the foundation, according to an exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of Natural History.

Others have left such items as a American nurse's white uniform worn in the war, a full-size Harley-Davidson motorcycle with a map of Vietnam sewn into its seat and a miniature replica of a bamboo prisoner-of-war cage, with mirror shards glued to its floor.

Park employees rarely see anyone leaving these tokens, as no one lingers in this sad place, said ranger Doug Demmon.

"I never see him, but one guy always brings barbed-wire wreaths," Demmon said. He said he will walk away for less than five minutes only to return to find dozens of things that were not there when he left.

One day, he said he was convinced he never took his eyes off the place but missed a person leave behind something highly unusual: an ancient Native American headdress.

It was placed in an odd pattern beside a dehydrated cat and bird and mice bones before its bearer disappeared in the crowd.

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