Thousands mark 25th anniversary of Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Gold Star Wives stand at the Wall during Sunday's ceremony.


By PATRICK THORNTON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 12, 2007

America’s most controversial war gave way to its most memorable war memorial.

The polished black granite of the Vietnam War Memorial is engraved with 58,256 names of fallen soldiers, but its impact has gone far beyond those who died in Vietnam, their family members and Vietnam veterans. Veterans from ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have come to the wall to help heal their wounds, and many Americans with no connections to recent wars visit the memorial.

On Veterans Day, 25 years after the Vietnam War Memorial was completed, thousands of veterans, their family members and others came to pay tribute to a memorial that has transcended generations and American culture. Vietnam veteran and retired Army Gen. Colin Powell gave the keynote address at the 25th anniversary ceremony, which was led by Jan Scruggs, founder and President of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.

Few, if any, ever imagined that two 75-foot pieces of rock that carve into the Earth could have ever meant this much to a nation or have been so cathartic to a generation of soldiers who fought in a tense, bloody and unpopular war.

“How could this gravestone to those who died in one of America’s most controversial, and perhaps most unpopular war, come to occupy such a wonderful, remarkable place in America’s collective heart,” Powell wondered before describing the power of the Wall. “The Wall came at a time when we desperately needed something to help heal a nation that had been deeply wounded by Vietnam and by other traumatic events in the 1960s and 1970s,”

Edie Meeks, board member of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Foundation and nurse during the War, remembers being told by fellow nurses, “be sure to take your uniform off as soon as you get stateside. Things aren’t pretty for anyone in uniform.”

She took off her fatigues and threw them in the trash as soon as she arrived in the U.S. Meeks felt as if she was a prisoner of the war for many years but the Wall eventually became the key that unlocked her cell, she said.

“Today, I am so proud I was an Army nurse,” she said. “I am so proud that I served in Vietnam. I can say out loud to my guys and my gals, ‘We’re the best. Welcome home.’”

Ironically, the popular memorial, which draws millions of visitors a year, was originally controversial because of its non-traditional design. Designer Maya Lin, who was 21 years old and an undergraduate at Yale University when she dreamed up a design for the memorial, conceptualized a design that cuts open the earth with one edge pointing towards the Lincoln Memorial and the other towards the Washington monument, connecting the Wall to those other memorials.

Lin was unable to attend the event but Bill Murdy, CEO of Comfort Systems USA and Vietnam veteran, read remarks from her. Lin did not anticipate how many people would visit the memorial over the years, nor did she foresee that people would leave personal objects at the Wall in tributes. But the memorial, with its polished, reflective walls, was meant for visitors so they could be part of the memorial.

“Each one of us, when we visit, put ourselves in the time and the memories held within its walls,” Lin said. “In a way, we complete the piece,”

Powell ended his address with the story of an item left at panel 10 west that was a cardboard photo frame that kids bring home from school at graduation time. It had a picture of a young man in his graduation clothes and a letter from the boy’s mother to his father. The father died in Vietnam and never got to raise his son, but the mother thanked him for his love and for their son.

“One item that will tell you all you need to know to understand the magic and the power of this wall,” Powell said of the photo frame.

It was the kind of memento that no one foresaw being left at the Wall when it was conceptualized, but now people leave flags, wreaths, personals items and other mementos day and night that are collected by the Park Service and kept at the National Park Service Repository.

The ceremony ended with Powell and many other veterans representing individual units leaving their own mementos at the Wall in the form of wreaths.

“There is magic in this wall that has stood for 25 years,” Powell said.

A Vietnam veteran salutes during the playing of Taps at the wreath-laying ceremony.