This Wednesday marked the 25th anniversary of the most visited monument in Washington:the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Busloads of children on school trips, World War II and Vietnam veterans, and foreign tourists filed slowly past the shining black granite monument that nests in the green landscape of the National Mall, as people took turns to read out the names of the 58,000 people who died in Vietnam.
AdvertisementThe first of the names, which are inscribed on the wall in chronological order according to when they died or went missing, was that of Harry Griffin Cramer, who died in South Vietnam in 1957. His name was read out by his son, Hank Cramer.
Barbara Brumet sobbed openly when she read out the name of "my dad, Robert Brumet."
"My dad was one of the earliest casualties in the Vietnam war. He was killed in 1964. I was six, in the first grade, and the war ended in 1975 when I was a senior in high school. It defined my childhood," she told AFP afterwards.
"I felt there was a stigma attached to being the child of a Vietnam veteran. You learned not to talk about it because in those days, people could say things like, 'Your dad died for nothing,' and I really didn't need to hear that," she said, as the litany of names continued.
The driving force behind the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which was unveiled on November 13, 1982, was Jan Scruggs, a veteran of the second most divisive war for America since the Civil War in the 19th century.
"This memorial is a tangible symbol to show that Vietnam veterans have been honored, and that those who died had the last laugh by having their name on the National Mall," said Scruggs, 57, who "volunteered for the draft when I was 18 because my parents were poor and the military would pay for my education."
Mike Coltran of Arizona served in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968, and lost an uncle, a cousin and several friends in the war.
"For those of us who came back, there was no parade, no job well done. There were demonstrations against the war instead of an 'attaboy'," he said as he stood in front of the monument, where children were making pencil rubbings of the names of fallen soldiers.
"When this memorial was put up, that was our coming home," he said.
The polished black granite memorial was designed by then-21-year-old Yale University student, Maya Ying Lin, a Chinese-American whose parents fled China in 1949, when Mao Zedong seized power.
Lin's design beat more than 1,400 others in what Scruggs says was "the largest architectural design competition held in the history of western civilization."
"We asked that the design should be reflective and contemplative," Scruggs said.
"There were many that were good but only one that evoked the emotions, that made it a great work of art, that would attract people who weren't in Vietnam to it, that would stand the test of time. That was the design by Maya Ying Lin," said Scruggs.
Since it was inaugurated 25 years ago, the striking architecture and spiritual message of the memorial, often referred to as The Wall, have seen it become the most visited monument in Washington, attracting some four million visitors a year.
"This is a great piece of architecture, like the pyramids of Egypt or the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, and great pieces of architecture will always attract visitors," Scruggs said.
Many people leave mementos at the memorial, something Scruggs said was unheard of before The Wall.
More than 100,000 items have been deposited at the base of the black slabs -- military medals, white shoes a girl wore to a school dance with her boyfriend, who later died in Vietnam, a photograph of a Vietnamese girl whose father was shot dead by a US GI.
"The wall is like an altar that one approaches with reverence and respect. It's been compared with Mecca: Muslims have to make a pilgrimage to Mecca. Participants in the Vietnam war make their pilgrimage to this monument," Scruggs said.
The memorial has "changed the way we welcome home soldiers even in the midst of a controversial war, because it helps us to separate the war from the warrior," said Scruggs.
"The veterans who are returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan are greeted with great enthusiasm, including by people who are opposed to the war."
Vietnam veteran Coltran agreed.
"I support our guys. I just wish they weren't there," he said.
"I want them to come home safer than these guys. I don't want them to have to come to a wall like this," he added.
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