In Washington D.C., near the intersection of 22nd Street NW and Constitution Avenue NW, just north of the Lincoln Memorial, stands a wall of black granite. It’s huge.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial consists of 140 stone panels, polished to a high finish, sunken into the earth. The panels create a massive wall that is 493 feet and 6 inches long, about the size of a skyscraper laid on its side.
You expect the wall to be big, but you’re not prepared for how big it really is. This thing is ginormous.
I was in D.C. a few months ago. The granite gleamed in the morning sun, I stood before the never-ending wall of stone, sipping a bottle of water, taking it all in. The Washington Monument was on one side, Honest Abe was on my other.
There was an old man and his grandson roaming the wall, reading the names reverently. The old man had a wild white beard, he wore an army cap.
“Look, Grandpa,” said the kid, “is this one my uncle’s name?”
“Lower your voice,” said Granddaddy.
“But… Why are we whispering?
“Respect,” the old man said.
There was indeed a very respectful mood at the Vietnam memorial, which surprised me. I’ve been to U.S. war memorials before. And at most National Park Service war memorials the mood is nonchalant, happy even. Because most memorials commemorate wars that happened so long ago that nobody can remember them.
At the Gettysburg Memorial, for example, I saw hundreds of families pushing strollers, laughing, posing with performers in Civil War costumes, snapping selfies. At Arlington National Cemetery, I saw school kids playing tag among gravestones.
But people were silent here.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is not like other American memorials. Here, I saw old men touching the wall, heads bowed. There were people taking photos of names. There were families telling old stories. I saw a few people weeping.
There are 58,000 names of servicemen and servicewomen engraved on the wall. Names are chronologically ordered from 1959 to 1975.
Each name has a symbol next to it; either a diamond or a cross. The diamond means the death was confirmed. The cross means the soldier was either a prisoner or missing.
There are also 14 veterans who did not die whose names on the wall. This was due to clerical errors.
Eugene J. Toni was one such man. He lost part of both legs in Vietnam. He was in treatment for post-traumatic stress when his therapist recommended he visit the wall as part of his healing process.
One day Toni and his wife roamed the wall looking for the name of a relative who died in the war when he found his own name.
“It was kinda scary,” he said. “It was like seeing your name on a gravestone.”
Also on the wall are the names of women. There aren’t many, however. There are only eight women on the wall. All nurses.
“People forget about the nurses,” a woman at the wall nearby told me. “But if it weren’t for the nurses, this wall would be a lot bigger.”
Nurses like Second Lieutenant Elizabeth Anne Jones, who was killed before her wedding, along with her fiancé, they were in a helicopter crash near Saigon.
And Captain Mary Klinker, who was helping with Operation Babylift, evacuating hundreds of South Vietnamese children. She was on an overcrowded cargo plane filled with orphans when they all went down.
There were 265,000 women in the military during Vietnam. Nearly 11,000 of them served in Vietnam. Ninety percent were volunteer nurses.
I watched an old woman search the wall with a careful eye for nearly 15 minutes, roving the list of names. When she found the one she was looking for, she wiped her eyes. Then she placed paper against the wall and used charcoal to make a stone rubbing. She folded the paper, kissed it, and tucked it into her pocket.
I saw a man with a walker, wearing a leather vest adorned in military patches. He hobbled to the wall and stared at one name for a long time. I heard him say to his wife, “I was only 22 years old.”
I saw more than that. I saw people hugging. I heard noses blowing. I saw two white-haired women press their foreheads together and stay like that for a while. I saw a man light a candle and say a prayer.
Before I left, I passed the grandfather and grandson I’d seen earlier. They were standing before the inscription at the apex of the wall. The old man read the engraving aloud for his grandson:
OUR NATION HONORS THE COURAGE, SACRIFICE AND DEVOTION TO DUTY AND COUNTRY OF ITS VIETNAM VETERANS.
“What’s devotion, Grandpa?” said the boy.
The old man gestured to the wall and said, “You’re looking at it.”
A - May 30, 2022 6:59 am
Beautiful. Thank you for this.
c lyn burnette - May 30, 2022 7:31 am
My Marine Vietnam veteran, our two daughters, and I stopped to visit the Wall one drizzling morning about 5 am (we were passing thru). We had a difficult time finding the Wall and asked a White House guard (back when you could actually get close enough to speak to a guard) for directions. We didn’t know the Wall was underground. So in the morning mist we paid tribute to his fellow Marines, our high-school heros, and an only son of a WWII veteran I dated one summer. The drizzle blended with the tears as we climbed up and past the other side.
We were also blessed to visit with the gentleman who took care of Lincoln as a part-time employee his entire career. (Look it up, it’s a moving tribute.)
And today we have a list of our family and friends we are losing to post-Vietnam War cancers and complications.
So when YOU are blessed to encounter a Vietnam veteran, say, ‘Welcome home and thank you.’
🇿🇦🇿🇦 Norma Den - May 30, 2022 8:38 am
Hi Sean, thanks for this. We visited DC in 1995 with friends & apart from much else we saw Lincoln’s memorial, & Vietnam Wall. Very moving, as I found at a few other memorials over the world. Culloden in Scotland had me in tears, Gettysburg, despite the crowds had me weeping. Oh the loss of so many lives in the endless pursuit of power & greed. So senseless. I pray there will be a small memorial for the Uvalde families.
Laura Grandquest - May 30, 2022 9:02 am
I have been to the Vietnam Memorial. I was old enough to know that a war was over but young enough not to realize the meaning. When I visited the memorial, I could only stay for a few minutes. I felt like an intruder. I didn’t know anyone on the wall. It was like going to a stranger’s funeral. That visit was very haunting to me.
Brenda - May 30, 2022 10:09 am
I laugh I cry I always feel
Debbie - May 30, 2022 10:57 am
Very somber indeed. My Vietnam Army Vet and I have been a few times to the Wall. So very moving. There is a permanent miniature Wall in Pensacola that we go to also. So many of those names were from the time he was there…always tears! He still has a few nightmares and lots of health issues from Agent Orange…so the memory is always with us. Our grand babies school had a parade honoring the vets on Veterans Day….he said “First parade ever for us”😢
Joy Jacobs - May 30, 2022 11:26 am
For those of us who lived during that turbulent time the Wall represents healing. My husband’s high school ROTC friend’s name is on The Wall. He was 18.
Pete Tucker - May 30, 2022 11:42 am
Anne Arthur - May 30, 2022 11:56 am
Today, too, I remember the soldiers whose funeral I attended right at the beginning of the war in Iraq, while my son was still over there in active duty. Heartbraking.
He made it home but I mourn all those who never saw their families again.
Leesa Wimberley - May 30, 2022 12:04 pm
The Vietnam Memorial is such a moving tribute to the loss of so many of our young people. Thank you for this, Sean.
John in Texas - May 30, 2022 12:18 pm
The traveling Vietnam Veterans wall was in of town a few months ago. It was a moving experience. I searched for vets from several of the towns I have lived in growing up. A lady there showed me how to do that “there’s an app”. 🙂 if you have an opportunity to see the traveling wall and cannot get to Washington D.C. try to go. You can find information here
Sherrie Kulwicki - May 30, 2022 12:35 pm
Just a few short years after my youngest son’s death in a car accident, I walked down that beautiful granite wall. My own heart was so shattered and my grief so raw I didn’t really even notice what I was doing. And then about midway down the wall I realized every one of these who were lost had a mother. I suddenly felt this warmth – almost an enveloping – as I realized I was not alone. It didn’t take away my grief but it sure helped me to begin to heal. Thank you Sean for what you do to make us think and feel.
Linda Lewis - May 30, 2022 12:41 pm
This gave me chills. My hubby is a Vietnam Vet. He spent two tours over there. He spent his nineteenth birthday fighting in the Battle of Hue, defending a bridge. I love my Vietnam Vet.
Susan W Fitch - May 30, 2022 12:59 pm
My husband and I visited the Wall about 3 years ago and yes, it was a very powerful and moving experience. Quiet, somber and respectful. We also spent time at the WW II memorial. Everyone who can travel to DC should visit these memorials – you may develop an even deeper understanding of the losses that our country has experienced.
Vincent Boles - May 30, 2022 1:01 pm
They went for us, because we sent them. Into the dirt and the dark they went because they committed their service to our defense. On this day, Remember what they did and Reflect on being a citizen worthy of them.
Ruth Mitchell - May 30, 2022 1:14 pm
How soon we forget. Thanks for the reminder. 😢
Kay - May 30, 2022 1:24 pm
My husband, Danny Perry, was on the USS Newport News. We were newly weds. His ship was commissioned to Viet Nam about 7 months before his time in service was up. I’ll never forget the send off from the dock in Norfolk Virginia. Thankfully, he made it home. Some of his friends did not. Visiting that monument when our daughter was in the sixth grade was such a sobering experience. I’ll never forget the quiet and the reverence there with 25 sixth graders. Everyone needs this experience.
Melanie - May 30, 2022 1:25 pm
Tears and heartache for all of our soldiers. Eternal gratitude.
Judy - May 30, 2022 2:06 pm
You are right Viet Nam changed us all. I was a brand new bride when my huscand went , Thank God he came home.
Cathy M - May 30, 2022 2:09 pm
Thank you for this. Every American who is able bodied should visit the wall. It is truly a religious experience. The Vietnam war did not get the support from us that other wars did. Just think of how many families were broken and bodies were crippled and shattered. Every veteran is a hero in my mind. God bless each and every one. Thank you for this and thank you to every person who has served our country.
Gordon - May 30, 2022 2:10 pm
Another excellent post, Sean; especially on this 2022 Memorial Day. We thank many for their sacrifice.
Mike Dube - May 30, 2022 2:26 pm
Jane & I went there a number of years ago, it being our generation’s war memorial. It took my breath away and brought me to tears then as it does again now. We lost no close friends over there ourselves, but share in the collective shame that so many of our generation’s vets got little respect at the time on their return home.
Richard Owen - May 30, 2022 2:33 pm
There is one other memorial that comes to mind that I have visited that produces the same somber respect as the Vietnam Memorial – Pearl Harbor’s USS Arizona. On this Memorial Day, God bless all those who gave the full measure of sacrifice for America’s freedoms.
Cathy Farmer - May 30, 2022 2:41 pm
Thank you for always being in touch with what our feels and what memories we mind to look back on My brother is on the wall he was 22 had been WN for 6 weeks left college to go had been married 10 months Was missing a few day then found him he was shipped home thankful we were able to see them still had a bandage around his head he was 1LT and was shot by a snipe love and miss him always
Jim Heywood - May 30, 2022 2:53 pm
I’m almost 80 with friends on the wall. Never served myself. Been there three times and the farthest I ever got down the ramp is about seven steps. It is a sacred place and so unnecessary
Sandra Jones - May 30, 2022 2:57 pm
Beautiful and moving
Patricia Gibson - May 30, 2022 3:58 pm
Jan - May 30, 2022 4:05 pm
Awesome tribute to the men and women who gave their all for their country and its people.
Sa - May 30, 2022 4:05 pm
Best description of VN memorial ever! I was there in once didn’t have words to explain being there 🙏🤫😔✝️
Mary Sue Dunaway - May 30, 2022 4:08 pm
Donna Ledford - May 30, 2022 4:13 pm
Agree with everything said, wish every American could visit the memorials. I thank you for your words. Your words make us think, encourage us to feel, take us on journeys that remind us what is valuable and important. You express what we don’t have the words/gift to do. Keep using your words.
Pieter Voorhees - May 30, 2022 4:22 pm
Thank you. I served in the Navy from ’64-’69, nowhere near Vietnam, At the time I volunteered in August ’64, I had already lost 3 friends in Vietnam, so I didn’t complain when I was assigned to the Atlantic Fleet. I was privileged to serve with a number of men who had served there, one of whom had served in small boats and was deeply affected by what he’d seen and done. The redeeming thing was the respect and care his shipmates, officer and enlisted, showed him. I still think of him from time to time, and hope that he got the care he needed so badly.
Tommy Neuman - May 30, 2022 4:33 pm
The Wall is so moving. So many young Marines, soldiers, airmen and sailors. May they Rest In Peace. In my mind they are still 18. I remember so many of them.
Judy Acker - May 30, 2022 4:37 pm
I’ve been there. You are right. There is a reverance not apparent at other memorials. I had no military connection with anyone. Yet, I cried. Thank you, soldiers and nurses.
Sandra Nelsen - May 30, 2022 4:53 pm
Haven’t been to Washington DC in probably 40 years. Hope to see the Vietnam Memorial. I did get to finally go to Hawaii and see the USS Arizona Memorial, which was one of my top five bucket list. Oh, that was so special, and reverent. Also visited the USS Missouri while we were there. My US Navy vet husband really enjoyed talking to the active duty military personal there, and donated my entire souvenir cash supply to help the upkeep. It was worth it. I want to see that Twin Towers 9/11 Memorial. Everyone who has gone there says there is a reverence there as well. When there is a great loss of life, I think it hallows the ground, and does touch our souls.
Libda - May 30, 2022 5:15 pm
It is a beautiful memorial
Sad the way it goes down into the ground but beautiful nonetheless….
A friend came to visit the wall with us
His name was Farnell
He was looking for his buddy’s name which was Parnell . He stood there for a long time when he found it and said , One letter made the difference…. Why?
We could not answer his question …
Linda Moon - May 30, 2022 5:30 pm
It was my generation, the Viet Nam war. Thank you for the respect to its Veterans from your post here. I, too, honor my peers, classmates and, and others who served there.
Robin - May 30, 2022 5:42 pm
pattymack43 - May 30, 2022 5:48 pm
We remember. We love. We pray……….
Nancy Korpal - May 30, 2022 6:19 pm
My coworkers and I were at a conference in DC and decided to take the “Monuments by Moonlight” tour. We visited every monument about the same time as a boisterous group of high school spring breaker’s. When we arrived at the Wall every one of those teens got very quiet and walked respectfully the entire length. They quietly asked their chaperones a few questions but even they, who were not born when the war was fought, seemed to grasp the enormity of the losses. It’s been at least ten years and I still remember this when I think about the Wall.
Jerry Ariail - May 30, 2022 7:22 pm
Kudos for a wonderful & timely article.
Barbara Barnes - May 30, 2022 7:40 pm
God’s peace be with the thousands of my generation who sacrificed their lives in Vietnam.
cajuntiger74 - May 30, 2022 8:06 pm
Sean, this is an amazing tribute to our Service men and women who gave America their full measure of love and devotion for our U.S.A. — they died for us. Thank you so much for writing this post. I write this with tears in my eyes. I went to high school in Florala, AL. Rodney Evans, from Florala, was a Medal of Honor recipient. His name is on that wall. He died while protecting members of his unit from a concealed land mine on July 18, 1969.
MAM - May 30, 2022 8:08 pm
I just attended a Memorial Day ceremony at Fort Bayard National Cemetery, NM, near where I live. It’s always moving to honor the more than 4,000 veterans who are buried at this cemetery. Every gravestone had a small flag, and a huge flag held by two fire ladder trucks blew in the brisk breeze at the entrance. American flags lined the streets of the cemetery. We must never forget the ultimate sacrifice and service these veterans gave to maintain the freedoms we have.
AlaRedClayGirl - May 30, 2022 10:57 pm
All Americans should visit DC and visit these memorials. I thank God all the vets in my family came home.
MR - May 30, 2022 11:29 pm
Had me fighting back the tears.My Uncle was in Vietnam. He drove a bulldozer. One of his jobs was to prepare the ground for graves. He never spoke about it. When he came back to the States, he turned to the only One who could safe him from the hell he lived through. . .he is with Jesus now
Emily Walls Ray - May 31, 2022 12:01 am
Thank you, Sean, for honoring men and women killed in the Vietnam Conflict. They deserve our thanks for their sacrifices. They are each missed and loved (I hope) by someone. War is hell, as they say, or “the management of violence.” It brings out the worst in us, and sometimes the best in us. We are complex beings. Emily, a veteran
CHARALEEN WRIGHT - May 31, 2022 1:35 am
KC - May 31, 2022 12:05 pm
Let us never forget our fallen heroes of Vietnam. Thank God there are Grampas still alive who served there and are passing on the respect those heroes so deserve. Thank you Sean for sharing your experience at the Wall so eloquently and with so much respect. God bless you.
Richard Baileys niece Chasity Davis Ritter - May 31, 2022 4:54 pm
My uncle served in Vietnam and thanks to Gods protection and Grace he came home safe all those years ago. We lost him 2 years ago on May 7. For Memorial Day I posted the picture of his marker with the flag and one from his funeral that showed his service picture and the flowers at the service. I read this column a little later in the day but thought it was so perfect about what this day means. And thought again but for the Grace of God his name wasn’t on that wall and we got to spend many more years with him in our lives. I know so very many weren’t that fortunate and this is all they have left. I hadn’t thought about this song in quite a while but I’m gonna share the one the Statler Brothers wrote for maybe other readers who’s family members name is on that wall. 🎶I saw her from a distance
As she walked up to the wall
In her hand she held some flowers
As her tears began to fall
And she took out pen and paper
As to trace her memories
And she looked up to heaven
And the words she said were these…
She said Lord my boy was special,
And he meant so much to me
And Oh I’d love to see him
Just one more time you see
All I have are the memories
And the moments to recall
So Lord could you tell him,
He’s more than a name on a wall.
She said he really missed the family
And being home on Christmas day
And he died for God and Country
In a place so far away
I remember just a little boy
Playing war since he was three
But Lord this time I know,
He’s not coming home to me
And she said Lord my boy was special,
And he meant so much to me
And Oh I’d love to see him
But I know it just can’t be
So I thank you for my memories
And the moments to recall
But Lord could you tell him,
He’s more than a name on a wall.
Lord could you tell him,
He’s more than a name on a wall.🎶
Linda Hill - June 6, 2022 1:54 pm
When my youngest sons, we’re 7 and 11 I’d take them to The Wall when we visited my parents who lived in Arlington, VA. It was the only place we could go to honor their father’s, my husband’s memory. Because there is no wall for the thousands of Vietnam Vets that committed suicide after the war. I wrote to People Magazine calling attention to that fact. In 1984 more soldiers had committed suicide than died in the war. They fact checked & published my letter. I wonder how much larger that number has grown since then….almost 38 years have passed & life has gone on. But when I write of this I still weep. For me, for all my children, for all the families that have known the horrible grief of losing their loved ones in times of war – or from the agony suffered from the soldiers that couldn’t live with the memories-or the persecution they experienced when they came home. There used to be & may still be a deeply meaningful memorial service every year for each soldier who’d died from suicide the past year. I pray the reason for this service has ended-but I fear it has not.
Vince - June 13, 2022 4:46 pm
The Wall and the Korean War memorials are haunting. The WWII memorial is fitting for the generation it honors, not fancy but gets the message across. If any Marines are at the Wall, go check out the base of the flag pole nearby. I wonder if the boot Marines are still being sent every morning to polish the Eagle, Globe, and Anchor.