The Vietnam Veterans Memorial – Sacred Space on the National Mall

Jan Scruggs understood that the Vietnam veterans needed a different kind of memorial. As he first set about his effort to build a memorial in Washington, DC, he envisioned a place that could bring healing, reconciliation and respect for veterans of the Vietnam War.

Scruggs knew first hand of the need for healing and reconciliation. He served a tour in Vietnam as an Army mortarman. Badly wounded after only thirty days, he spent three months recovering in the hospital. He lost 12 friends and comrades when a mortar round detonated while ammunition was loaded into a truck.  Scruggs was not physically injured and he was first on the scene to help, but the carnage he witnessed stayed with him. As did many other veterans, he struggled upon his return to the United States in 1970.

After seeing the movie The Deer Hunter, he committed himself to building a memorial in the nation’s capital to honor the men and women who did not come home from Vietnam. In 1979, Scruggs established the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund and enlisted the help of other veterans in raising money, lobbying Congress and negotiating the process of building a memorial on the National Mall.

The Memorial Plaque was added to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 2004.

One day, a discussion with a fellow Vietnam veteran led to an important feature of the memorial. Although Scruggs and his fellow veteran did not know each other, they realized they had served in the same unit, separated by only a few months’ time. They remembered many of the same people, yet they struggled to recall soldiers’ names, especially several soldiers who died. The conversation convinced Scruggs of the importance of including names on the memorial so the dead would not be forgotten. 

As the work for the memorial advanced, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund organized a nationwide competition to select the design. Scruggs’s vision for the memorial shaped the selection criteria. The memorial needed to be reflective and contemplative, harmonize with other memorials on the National Mall, bear the names of the dead and missing, and be apolitical. As Scruggs would say, it was important to “separate the war from the warrior”. The memorial was about recognizing the bravery and sacrifice of American soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen.

The flagpole at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial flies the United States and POW/MIA Flag.

On May 1, 1981, a panel of eight distinguished artists, architects and designers unanimously selected the “V” shaped wall design submitted by a young Yale University student named Maya Lin from over 1,400 submissions. Over the past forty years, the reflective black granite wall bearing the names of the dead and missing from the Vietnam War has become one of Washington, DC’s most recognizable landmarks.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is located on the National Mall’s northwest corner.  Approaching from the neighboring Lincoln Memorial, a National Park Service ranger station and the flagpole are what first come into view. Then the top of the wall becomes visible, protruding from a shallow ravine. Finally, the entirety of the almost 500-foot wall reveals itself.

Lin’s design is deceptive in its simplicity, a black granite wall with the names of those service members who died or were missing in Southeast Asia from 1959 through 1975. As Lin said,” the names would become the memorial”.

The “wall” is actually composed of 144 black granite panels. Seventy-two of these panels, numbered 1E to 70E comprise the eastern section of the wall, which point to the Washington Monument. The western panels are similarly numbered (1W to 70W) and point to the Lincoln Memorial. There are two empty panels on either end.

A National Park Service Volunteer (wearing a yellow jacket) speaks with visitors at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

The names, listed chronologically from 1959, begin at the center on Panel 1E. After the last name on Panel 70E, they resume in chronological order on Panel 70W and continue back toward the center of the wall. The names beginning and ending in the center represents a circle, signifying the end of the war. Additionally, Lin’s selection of polished black granite draws the visitor into the memorial. The stone retains its mirror-like quality, wherein the visitors sees themselves as they view the names.

At its dedication, the wall had 57,939 names. Thorough reviews of medical reports and personnel records led to the addition of over 300 more names. A small diamond or cross accompanies each name. A diamond means the service member has been declared deceased. A cross means the service member was missing or a prisoner at the war’s end. (On the west side, the symbol precedes the name; on the east wall, it follows). A diamond is added to the cross if the service member is at some point declared deceased. A circle is added to the cross should the service member ever return alive.

Dedication day for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was November 13, 1982, with decidedly mixed reviews. Many prominent critics disparaged the design as unpatriotic and defeatist. After two years of discussion among the several communities involved in building the memorial, there was a consensus to recognize others beyond the dead and missing. A flagpole and statue adjacent to the wall were added to the memorial in 1984.

The Three Soldiers Statue

Local Washington, DC sculptor Frederick Hart designed and sculpted the bronze statue showing three young male soldiers wearing fatigues and carrying combat gear. Known as The Three Soldiers or The Three Service Members statue, it honors those who served and returned home from Vietnam. The statue stands a short distance away from the wall with the soldiers looking respectfully toward the names so as not to distract from Maya Lin’s original intent.

A second statue recognizing women’s service in Vietnam was dedicated in 1993. About 11,500 women served in Vietnam. Most were nurses, but they also served as doctors, air traffic controllers, intelligence personnel and in certain administrative roles. The Vietnam Women’s Memorial statue depicts three women rendering assistance to a wounded male soldier. A unique feature of Glenna Goodacre’s sculpture is that there is no front nor back. The three female figures stand on a round pedestal so from any angle the women are seen performing their duty. Eight yellowwood trees surrounded the statue representing the eight female service members who died in Vietnam.

The final component of the memorial is the In Memory Plaque, added in 2004. The plaque acknowledges those Vietnam veterans who returned home, but who died of causes resulting  from their wartime service. The stone helps to remember those whose names are not on the wall.

The Vietnam Women’s Memorial statue

As the components of the memorial expanded, so has its number of visitors. People of all backgrounds are drawn to the wall: Vietnam veterans, relatives, friends, and colleagues, even those with little background or no immediate connection to the war. Currently, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial draws over five million people a year, making it one of the most visited sites in Washington, DC. 

A dedicated cadre of National Park Service rangers as well as volunteers are generally present at the memorial and ready to share stories of the memorial, help visitors find names and maintain the dignified environment. Paper directories with names listed alphabetically are available on adjoining walkways.

Visits to the memorial have generated two unique cultural practices. Tracing names using paper and pencils or charcoal has become a common ritual. This simple keepsake honors the fallen and commemorates or shares one’s time at the wall. Placing mementos of all kinds (medals, letters, documents, uniform items, even service member remains) at the foot of the panels is another practice. Since its opening in 1982, the National Park Service recorded over 400,000 items left in tribute. (Visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund website to see a sample of items found at the wall).

A detail of the nurse tending to a wounded US soldier at the Vietnam Women’s Memorial.

As the Vietnam Veterans Memorial enters its fifth decade, it lives up to the vision Jan Scruggs intended years ago, a place to go for healing, for peace. Wanda Ruffin, a widow whose husband James Ruffin is listed on the memorial, summed it up in writing: The Wall opens people up to their feelings. … There is something about the place that says, “It’s okay to show your feeling when [you] are down there.”

Indeed, this memorial’s attribute for healing is not exclusive to Vietnam veterans. It is not uncommon to see American veterans of later wars visiting the memorial to find peace and meaning in their service. Other visitors gather there for serenity and refection. In a city with many monuments, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is decidedly different.

It is America’s sacred space on the National Mall.

Route Recon

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is located on the northwest end of the National Mall, adjacent to the Lincoln Memorial, near the intersection of 23rd Street NW and Constitution Ave. NW. The official address of the memorial is 5 Henry Bacon Drive NW, Washington, DC 20002.

Hours: Open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. A kiosk on the Lincoln Memorial side is staffed from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.

The closest Metro station is Foggy Bottom/GWU (blue, orange and silver line trains) at 23rd and I Streets NW. It’s about a 15-minute walk southeast to the memorial. You can find bus and subway schedules at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority website.

The National Mall Circulator Loop bus stops just north of the memorial at 21st Street NW and Constitution Avenue NW and provides easy access around the National Mall.

Street parking along Constitution Avenue can be hard to find and is usually limited to two hours.

Capital Bikeshare has stations across the Mall, including two at the Lincoln Memorial and three behind the memorial on Constitution Avenue. The Mall is flat, so it’s easy for biking, and you’ll find bike racks at every memorial and monument.

National Park Service Rangers offer tours of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Korean War Memorial on weekends. Find more information about events at all the memorials on the National Mall at the National Parks Service online calendar.