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Vietnam Veterans' Memorial Turns 20

The Vietnam Veterans' Memorial in Washington, D.C. turns 20 this year. The glossy, black granite wall lists the names of more than 58,000 Americans who died in one of the most divisive wars in American history. The Wall, much like the war itself, was very controversial when it was erected in 1982. So controversial, in fact, that then U.S. President Ronald Reagan did not attend the ceremony marking its dedication. VOA's Maura Farrelly takes a look back at that controversy and considers the legacy of the Wall.

The Americans who served in Vietnam did not come home to a heroes' welcome. The country was bitterly divided over the war. Many believed America shouldn't have gotten involved in the conflict between North and South Vietnam, and their condemnation extended to those who fought. Others found it difficult to accept that the war was not a resounding victory for America, and they avoided the issue by avoiding the veterans.

But then in 1979, a group of veterans and lawmakers formed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. They pushed to have legislation enacted that would allow for a monument to be erected on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Organizers wanted the monument to be different from other war memorials. They didn't want it to comment on the war itself, but rather, to focus on the people who lost their lives and on the survivors whose lives would forever be changed. They finally decided upon a design submitted by a 21-year-old Chinese-American architectural student, named Maya Lin. Senator John Warner of Virginia helped to select that design. He recalls that many veterans found the black, V-shaped wall rising out of the ground to be insulting and unheroic.

"When it was first selected, the design, it came under fierce criticism, because it was, they called it 'The Black Wall Carved Into the Ground.' And it was fiercely fought," Senator Warner said. "You know, people felt that they wanted some big, gigantic type of memorial. Where this thing is very simplistic, very silent, but enormously forceful."

Critics compared the design to the more glorious Iwo Jima monument in Arlington, Virginia across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. That statue honors World War II veterans by depicting a moment of victory in the war between America and Japan. But the design for the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial didn't call for any faces of victory to be carved into the granite, just the names of those who had been killed. The Reagan Administration would not permit the Wall to be built on the National Mall until the committee that had selected Maya Lin's design agreed also to erect a statue of three, living American soldiers. That statue was ultimately dedicated in 1984. But two decades later, it is the Wall that draws thousands of people to the National Mall every day.

More than 25 million people have visited the Wall since its dedication. Some come to find relatives and friends in the granite; other come simply to contemplate the tremendous loss of life. According to the National Parks Service, the Wall is the most visited monument in America's capital city, more popular by far than the Washington Monument, which also stands on the Mall and from a particular angle can actually be seen reflected in the glossy black granite that bears 58,000 names.

Dennis Mannion is a high school teacher who served in Vietnam in 1965, when he was 19 years old. He says he was here on the day the Wall was dedicated, and that he comes back every three years, always wearing his battle fatigues.

"You get a chance to come to terms with the fact that you're still alive, and that other people have moved on," he said. "And the other thing is with the reflection the way it is, and you can look and see yourself inside the stones. I'm 56 now, but when I stand here, I'm 19."

The very day the Wall was dedicated, people began leaving items at the base--flowers, letters, medals, sometimes even divorce decrees, testifying to the fact that individual lives weren't the only casualties of the Vietnam War. Since 1982, more than 60,000 items have been left at the Wall. It's fairly common nowadays for Americans to mourn this way, as evidenced by the thousands of items that have been left at the site of the World Trade Center in New York City, where nearly 3,000 people were killed by terrorists last September. But Jan Scruggs, the veteran who led the effort to get the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial built, says before the Wall, Americans didn't mourn so openly.

"This was something that gave Americans the license to mourn publicly, which is quite an exciting and different phenomenon here in the United States," he said. "Around 1984 or 1985, what my wife calls 'Highway Headstones' began appearing on highways, where, you know, someone is killed in a traffic accident, and you see a little cross, or something that has the person's name. And she actually traces this back to the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial."

In 1984, several veterans who had traveled to Washington two years earlier for the Wall's dedication decided to build a replica of the memorial. That replica is half the size of the original but it bears all of the names, and it is mobile. Every year, the so-called "Moving Wall" is taken to cities and towns across the United States, so people who can't get to Washington can still experience the power of Maya Lin's design. So far, the Moving Wall has been on display in more than 700 communities and visitors have left thousands of personal items at its base.