"The Wall," as it's commonly called, is one of the most visited sites in Washington. The names of more than 58,000 Americans who died in the Vietnam War are etched in its black granite panels, creating a somber, dignified, and powerful memorial. It was conceived by Jan Scruggs, a former infantry corporal who served in Vietnam, and designed by Maya Lin, then a 21-year-old architecture student at Yale.
Thousands of offerings are left at the wall each
year: many people leave flowers, others leave personal objects such as the clothing of soldiers or letters of thanks from schoolchildren. The National Park Service collects and stores the items. In 2003, President George W. Bush signed a law authorizing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund to build an education center at The Wall. The center will display some of the offerings, as well as the faces of those lost to the war. Fundraising is currently underway and the project is expected to break ground in 2016, for completion in 2018.
The statues near the wall came about in response to controversies surrounding the memorial. In 1984 Frederick Hart's statue of three soldiers and a flagpole was erected to the south of the wall, with the goal of winning over veterans who considered the memorial a "black gash of shame." A memorial plaque was added in 2004 at the statue of three servicemen to honor veterans who died after the war as a direct result of injuries suffered in Vietnam, but who fall outside Department of Defense guidelines for remembrance at the wall.
The Vietnam Women's Memorial was dedicated on Veterans Day 1993. Glenna Goodacre's bronze sculpture depicts two women caring for a wounded soldier while a third woman kneels nearby; eight trees around the plaza commemorate the eight women in the military who died in Vietnam.
Names on the wall are ordered by date of death. To find a name, consult the alphabetical lists found at either end of the wall. You can get assistance locating a name at the white kiosk with the brown roof near the entrance. At the wall, rangers and volunteers wearing yellow caps can look up the names and supply you with paper and pencils for making rubbings. Every name on the memorial is preceded (on the west wall) or followed (on the east wall) by a symbol designating status. A diamond indicates "killed, body recovered." A plus sign (found by a small percentage of names) indicates "killed, body not recovered." If you're visiting with older children or teens, be prepared for questions about war and death. Sometimes children think all 58,282 soldiers are buried at the monument. They aren't, of course, but the wall is as evocative as any cemetery.