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On Memorial Day, They Come to Remember and Heal


Photo by John Zangas

Veteran John Zangas makes an annual visit to the Vietnam War Memorial. These are his personal reflections on the meaning of these visits for veterans and families of fallen service members on Memorial Day.

They visit the Vietnam War Memorial on Memorial Day and few return unchanged. Veterans call it “The Wall.” They know it as a place to reflect and remember. The Wall simply lists the names of the fallen on black granite in Optima typeface. It tells nothing of their personal sacrifice or their final acts. No grand quote, inscription, or embellishment; no flag waves overhead.

Panel W70: Anderson, Barnhart, Bates, Blanksma, …

Its structure is the antitheses of every other memorial built on the National Mall. It resembles a gaping tar roof thrown on its side into a bevel of earth. Its open side has a narrow promenade gradually descending in open air, down a tilted slope.

Walking into it one gradually descends as if into an open crypt, passing a silent roll call of 53,272 names chiseled onto 140 dark panels. The vertical stones reach up to ground level and stretch along an invisible parapet, while at the base the footsteps of visitors polish the walkway.


Photo by John Zangas

Panel W50: Manson, Kendrick, Nabors, Parish, …

The etched names extend to the boundary of the stones. The names stretch farther than can be seen and fade into the apex. A lush carpet of combed grass contrasts with the dark precipice–opposites of hope and despair, green and black, life and death.

The escarpments point towards the alabaster corners of the Washington Monument to the east and Lincoln Memorial to the west. The names bear tribute to the sacrifice of an aged generation slowly surrendering to its last sorrows. The observer is mirrored in its dark beauty, beckoned to a mood of quiet introspection.

Panel W38: Hammond, Dunn, Evans, Ford, …

Families, friends, comrades in arms, brothers and sisters of the war fallen return to this rock for closure. The Wall is what they have left to pay tribute and honor their lost warriors. They lay treasured mementos at its base near the polished step stones, every conceivable type of memorabilia: photographs, ribbons, flags, medals, six-packs of beer, worn combat boots, dog tags, uniforms, chevrons, C-Ration boxes, cherished final letters of love, missives from the field. “I’ll be home soon, wait for me.”

Panel W23: Broughton, Brown, Callahan, Cox, …

They kneel at its rampart and reach to touch its black face as if somehow grasping beyond for one last touch of their dearly departed. It is time to let go.

Panel W5: Lyons, Mirrer, Nixon, Scherer, …

They trace outlines of names lost to war off the black surface onto white paper which somehow conjures lost lives into temporary being. The  traced names are like white ghosts rising from the flat tomb of black slabs. For a moment they revive a memory of a forgotten time.

Panel 3E: Conception, Kosakowski, Jedrzejewski, …

The Wall mysteriously draws out grief; it unlocks deep sorrow. It makes people tell stories they’ve never told before; inspired by the 53,272 voices who say, “Never forget.”


Photo by John Zangas

Panel 19E: Cain, Cherick, Cleveland, Cornwell, …

And so they come here as they have for thirty years since its construction, both civilians and uniformed veterans, sorrowful and yearning to expel demons. Name upon name they trace its lineage through stories.

Panel 24E: Taylor, Taylor, Terry, Thomas, …

The survivors here are turning the last pages of a chapter they cannot erase. The stories they tell are left between the silent names, spoken between the names on the stone, told by witnesses who repeat them. The Wall echoes a million stories through the memories of the war survivors who come to it.

Panel 30E: Carter, Cizneros, Clark, Cooper, …

Nearby the Vietnam Women’s Memorial recognizes the 1,000 unsung heroines of the War. It is considered part of the Wall structure, as is the Soldier’s Statue.

Panel 38E: Jensen, Jackson, Johnson, Justice, …

The last orange hues of the setting sun trace the top edge of the Wall. Wisps of heat slip from the surface, warming the few who remain. Footlamps burn as twilight falls, quietly illuminating the names in the night should anyone linger to bear witness, or have a story to tell.

Panel 70E: Vrankovich, Whitehill, Williams, Alba, …

The Veterans who come here usually don’t speak out against the War or its consequences, although there are many reasons they could do so. It is just not their way to deal with their memories of it. Their purpose is to remember and tell the stories so future generations will not forget.

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