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Bill Shugarts places his hand against the black wall at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, pressing his fingers and palm against soldiers’ names. “Feel how hot it gets,” says Shugarts, a Vietnam veteran and National Park Service volunteer. The black granite radiates heat, and Shugarts smiles softly as he removes his hand, his face and yellow hat reflecting faintly in the mirrorlike wall.
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The wall isn’t like other Washington, D.C., memorials. Stretching 246 1/2 feet on each of its two sides, the 70-panel, V-shaped wall is a dark contrast to its white marble counterparts on the National Mall, serving as both symbolic scar and cathartic gathering site for veterans. Shugarts and his fellow volunteers speak frequently of “wall magic”: the mix of reflection and closure, unlikely encounters and improbable reunions that routinely occur at the nearly 40-year-old memorial.
Plan Your Trip
Location: On the northwest end of the National Mall, adjacent to the Lincoln Memorial, near the intersection of 23rd Street NW and Constitution Ave. NW
Getting there: 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 wmata.com. Hop-on/hop-off bus services include Big Bus Tours and Old Town Trolley. Street parking is hard to find and usually limited to two hours, but you can reserve spots in parking garages via websites such as BestParking.com and SpotHero.com. Expect to pay $12 to $28 for garages (the closest ones are about 4 to 5 blocks away). 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.
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.
Best time to visit: Mornings are quietest, and veterans lead tours each day at 11 a.m. Most D.C. memorials are stunning at night, but the black-granite Vietnam wall looks dim in the darkness. Some veterans come to the wall at night, Schultz says, so people cannot see them cry.
Best season to visit: Autumn is ideal. The temperatures are cooler, and the surrounding oak, walnut and American elm trees beam with gold and red leaves, which reflect in the wall. Avoid D.C.’s notoriously hot and humid summer months (the wall receives no shade).
Accessibility: The Vietnam memorial is wheelchair-accessible, and the National Park Service provides free braille brochures at every memorial and monument.
In his 14 years as a volunteer, Shugarts has swapped emotional stories with fellow veterans, taken filmmaker Ken Burns for a tour, and even met two former Viet Cong soldiers, which has led to an enduring and surprising friendship. The wall represents not glory, but pain, and its healing power also attracts veterans from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, who find comfort among its 58,395 names.
Volunteers such as Shugarts are part of the wall’s magic. He served with the U.S. Army in Vietnam from 1969 to 1971 and was awarded three Bronze Stars. He’s one of 125 Vietnam veterans who work at the memorial, easily identified by their yellow hats as they answer questions and help visitors find names. If you want to meet these dedicated men and women, now is the time to go. Most Vietnam veterans are in their 70s, and more than 300 vets die each day.
When a panel of eight architects, landscape architects and sculptors announced the winning design for the memorial in 1981, the public reacted with more wall fury than wall magic. The unconventional concept and lack of patriotic symbols outraged many veterans and conservative politicians.
“War memorials up to that time in American history were a bronze general on horseback waving a sword,” says Thomas Schultz, a Navy veteran and president of DC Military Tours. “But this was different. It didn’t look like what people were used to.”
The design criteria, developed by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF), included multiple requirements: The memorial should be reflective, contemplative and apolitical; it should harmonize with its environment; and it should contain the names of the dead and missing. The VVMF’s competition generated 1,421 anonymous entries, and the winner was number 1,026, created by Maya Lin, an unknown 21-year-old student at Yale University.
Lin’s concept was simple, stark and ingenious. By carving the wall into the earth, the memorial symbolizes the nation’s wound. The reflective panels show trees, grass and nearby monuments, which connects it to the surrounding Mall, and allows visitors to see themselves, linking them to the names. But opponents hated the black granite, the lack of heroic emblems and the way the wall sunk rather than rose. Then-Secretary of the Interior James Watt called the design “an act of treason” (before he had even seen it), while financial supporter H. Ross Perot angrily declared it a “trench.” Over the objections of Lin and her architect, the design was modified to incorporate a flagpole and two sets of statues. The animosity, however, continued. At the memorial’s dedication in 1982, an angry vet accosted Lin, and some veterans discussed plans to detonate the memorial, as U.S. Army veteran James Reston Jr. notes in his book, A Rift in the Earth.