29 March 2013
THE VIRTUAL WALL
I first visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (known to veterans simply as the Wall) when my then-wife and I were living in Philadelphia in the early 1990s. We drove down to Washington, DC, to spend a spring day exploring the wealth of monuments and museums arrayed around the National Mall. I'd known about the Wall since its controversial planning and completion in 1982. It was our first stop that day.
The Wall is designed as a shallow V when viewed from above. One end points toward the nearby Lincoln Memorial, the other points toward the more distant Washington Monument. The top of each end of the V is level with the ground, while the base and the viewing walk sink gradually beneath ground level as one approaches the apex. The face of the Wall is open to air and sunlight, and the back melds into the earth. Etched on its face are the names of the 58,272 service men and women who died or remain missing during the Vietnam War. Names are incised in the chronological order of their deaths, with the shallower height of the Wall at each end matching the lower numbers of casualties in those years of the war itself.
I'd heard from others, and read in news accounts, that the Wall's design, combined with the memories which visitors bring, make most visits highly emotional. As we approached it from the northeast, as yet unable to see the face of the memorial, I found myself walking more and more slowly, overcome by feelings of dread and loss. Finally I reached the east end, and was able to see along the entire length of all those glossy, reflective black panels which (a) list the dead, and (b) reflect the image of the living viewer. My heart was racing, and as I descended the gentle incline, each name became a once-living person.
Arrayed along the base were mementos people had left to honor loved ones ~ photographs, letters, brief notes, military medals, flowers. I paused and knelt to read frequently, and without knowing it, was sobbing uncontrollably.
I've visited the Wall several times, and each has been powerful, cathartic.
Over the years, the Park Service (which maintains national monuments), the military, and private non-profit groups have taken steps to make the Wall experience more accessible to those who may not live near enough to visit. Scale-down replicas have toured the nation. I recently discovered an on-line resource called The Virtual Wall ~ a website where one can perform a search for a particular person by last name, by city & state, or by military unit. One can also simply choose a unit and browse the casualties sustained. Or, one can view facsimiles of individual Wall panels by date or panel number, then click on a given name to view that person's dates of birth and death, military unit, and (where available) a photograph.
It is a remarkable and poignant experience, one I recommend to everyone, whether or not you (or someone you know) was in the service then, or is now.