On a typical hot and humid day in August, my wife and I visited the Vietnam Memorial on The Mall in Washington. Entering from the northern end, we noticed we were descending this great black wall of memorials in reverse order—those who perished at the end of the conflict coming first, before getting to the larger sections of the wall in the center. The north portion of the wall points to the Washington monument, whereas the east facing portion aims toward the Lincoln memorial. 58,000 names of lives lost are in order of the date they died. The period between 1959 and 1975 represents our longest military action.
Walking down into this subterranean, black-granite monument gave me a strange and uneasy feeling. It was unlike anything I’d experienced before, or after visiting the other more grandiose military memorials on The Mall. My father served in Korea while other relatives served in WWII, but I could not understand why I felt so anxious at the Vietnam wall. Coming up and out the east end to see the spectacular statue called “The Three Servicemen” helped provide some relief. Nestled in shade among a grove of trees, this statue captured the essence of what I’d come to see. While I appreciated watching the reverent action of a park staff member doing a “rubbing” of a name to give a relative, that statue made the trek through the heat worth it.
A month later, I was speaking to a veteran who claimed that masterpiece by artist Frederick Hart truly captured the essence of what it was like in Vietnam. Hot and humid beyond belief, soldiers did whatever they could to stay alive and get home. He added that one comrade had both legs blown off very near to him, and the last time he saw him he was being lifted away by a helicopter. Decades later, he learned this fellow spent years struggling with substance abuse, but finally broke out of his demise by winning gold medals in Paralympic skiing before moving on to several other sports.
The soldier’s son, whom I was speaking with later, confided in me saying, “My dad went through absolute hell over there and saw horrific things, even his best friend killed. But the vilest experience of all was actually being spit on when he returned to the U.S. from his flight.” This soldier told me, “For 25 years, I never told anyone outside of my family that I served over there.”
I was glad I visited the memorial on such a steamy day.