WASHINGTON — The Vietnam War Commemoration hosted Welcome Home, a three-day event in Washington, D.C. on May 11-13 to celebrate 50 years since the last Soldier, Master Sgt. Max Beilke, left Vietnam, and to honor Vietnam veterans who died and are still missing in action.
More than 58,300 service members paid the ultimate sacrifice and gave their lives during the Vietnam War.
One key word is echoed by many when speaking about past U.S. conflicts: sacrifice. When a service member is called to action, the force answers, regardless of the nature of the call. And in conflict, some service members pay the ultimate sacrifice.
One of the main monuments built to honor those who gave their lives during Vietnam is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which chronologically lists the names of the 58,318 Americans who died or are MIA.
“I know the names of all 17 guys who lost their lives making the ultimate sacrifice and … the issue for me is when I go to the wall, I have a struggle … all of those guys come back rushing into my conscious,” said retired Col George Forrest, a Vietnam veteran who fought in the Battle of Ia Drang, which was popularized in the movie “We Were Soldiers.”
During the Welcome Home event, a panel was hosted by members who were responsible for the conception and completion of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Sitting on the panel was Jan Scruggs, who, in 1979, dedicated his efforts to create the memorial; Terrence O’Donnell, who served as an Air Force counterintelligence officer in Vietnam and as outside counsel for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund; and Paul Spreiregen, a Washington, D.C.-based architect, planner and author.
“One definition of a great memorial is that it conveys a forceful message about the events or the individuals that it commemorates,” O’Donnell said. “And that's why [the Vietnam Veterans Memorial] is so compelling to visitors, veterans, families, those who serve and those who didn't serve. They want to see this, and they're moved by it. It is a religious experience.”
The memorial is the most visited memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., attracting more than 5 million people each year.
Getting the monument built was not an easy process, but several veterans were determined to make it happen.
“I started the effort, not knowing what I was doing; ultimately, I got a good team behind me,” Scruggs said. “The thing that makes [the memorial] different than all other memorials is that people can interact with it. They touch it, participate with it, cry with it. There’s kind of a communion between the living and the dead, and it has done so much for military veterans and for the people who come to see it.”
When the monument was being conceptualized, there were several ideas that needed to be incorporated into the design, including the names of those who died and the MIA, and it needed to be in a place of honor, which is why it is located between the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial.
The last thing they needed was a design.
“The decision to have a design competition was made by the sponsor group for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, design competitions, for architectural projects, planning and landscape,” Scruggs said. “The reason for holding [a design competition] for this memorial is quite simple, and that is that it was for Americans to answer — to find — to search for a way to honor the memory of those whose lives were lost.”
Ultimately, the winning design came from Maya Lin, artist and architect who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“She had a very striking design [that uses] the black granite, in which you can see your own reflection,” Scruggs said. “The arrangement of the names, they’re actually alphabetized by day … fantastic work of art.”
Even though the war is often a point of controversy in U.S. history, many veterans still stand for honoring those who paid the ultimate sacrifice.
“Whenever I’m asked, ‘What do you say to the skeptic about the war,’ I say honor the warrior, not the war,” Forrest said.
For many people, visiting the memorial can be emotional and impactful. For many veterans, the monument stands as a testament to the sacrifice made by the service members with whom they served.
“The most compelling feature of the memorial: you cannot walk down that path and see the gradual increase in the number of names and not think about the nature of war and the investment of life and treasure,” O’Donnell said. “People take away their own views, their own perspective on what they just saw, and what they take away is a memory that's going to stick with them for life.”