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.
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.
And yet almost immediately, visitors grasped Lin’s idea that you must confront pain in order to heal. Families and veterans cried as they located names on the wall. They began leaving artifacts, from combat boots to medals. Between 4 and 5 million people visit the memorial each year, making it one of the most visited sites on the National Mall.
Touring the memorial
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial isn’t just the wall. As you arrive on the Lincoln Memorial side of the memorial, you’ll see the flagpole and the Three Servicemen statue, created by sculptor Frederick Hart. The statue’s soldiers are young (the average age of fallen or MIA soldiers in Vietnam was 22 years, nine months) and diverse (about 18 percent of the soldiers in Vietnam were African American). Two are carrying M16 rifles, and one has dog tags taped to his chest, which helped reduce noise, Shugarts says. A plaque dedicated in 2004 honors those who have died from war-related causes — including exposure to Agent Orange — since the wall’s unveiling.
Turn right from the statue and you’ll quickly reach the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, added in 1993. Created by sculptor Glenna Goodacre (the mother-in-law of singer Harry Connick Jr.), the statue shows three women treating a soldier with a chest wound. Eight servicewomen were killed in Vietnam, and eight yellowwood trees surround the shady site. “About 8,000 to 10,000 women served in Vietnam, mostly nurses,” Shugarts says. “For the wounded, they were your lifeline.”
The wall remains the memorial’s most powerful draw. You can enter from either side, and as you walk, you descend deeper into the cut earth. The panels grow taller. The number of names increase. At the apex, the two adjoining panels are 10.1 feet high.
Look closely at the names. A diamond or cross precedes each one. A diamond signifies a fallen solider; a cross indicates the person is missing. If a missing person is eventually determined to be dead, a diamond is placed over the cross. For those discovered to be alive, the cross is enclosed in a circle.
Stenciling a name with paper and pencil quickly became a wall tradition, but Lin never imagined this in her design. Visitors discovered this on their own, another example of wall magic. Many people come to find a loved one’s name, but every name tells a story. Viet Cong guerrillas killed Army Maj. Dale Buis, the first name engraved on the wall, in 1959. Shrapnel during a rocket attack in 1968 killed Sharon Lane, an army nurse. Volunteers can share many soldiers’ stories.
Some veterans still leave artifacts, including photographs, flags, dog tags and the occasional six-pack of beer. As more veterans die, some families are leaving urns. The National Park Service has catalogued 400,000 items left at the wall; you can see some of them in “The Price of Freedom” display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, about a 10-minute walk from the memorial as you head east past the Washington Monument.
More to Explore
Washington, D.C., is home to an estimated 247 memorials, from traffic-circle statues to the sprawling Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial. The Lincoln Memorial and Korean War Veterans Memorial are the Vietnam memorial’s closest neighbors, but if you want to explore memorials beyond the Mall, consider these stops.
African American Civil War Memorial: Dedicated in 2004, the memorial features a bronze statue of Black soldiers and the names of more than 200,000 servicemen. It’s located about 3 miles northeast of the Vietnam memorial on the corner of U Street NW and Vermont Avenue NW, at the entrance to the U Street/African-American Civil War Memorial/Cardozo Metro stop (yellow and green line trains). Across the street is the free African American Civil War Museum. Six days a week, you’ll find the museum’s historic interpreter, Marquett Milton, wearing period costumes and answering questions at the memorial. Feeling hungry? Walk five minutes west on U Street NW to D.C.’s most famous restaurant, Ben’s Chili Bowl, known for its half smokes (a half-pork, half-beef grilled sausage).
Arlington National Cemetery: Yes, you’ll want to see the changing of the guard and the eternal flame at John F. Kennedy’s gravesite, but Schultz suggests stopping in section 31 (the cemetery is divided into 70 sections), where President William Howard Taft is buried beneath a 14-foot-high granite monument (you’ll also find the tomb of Robert Todd Lincoln, President Lincoln’s firstborn son). The cemetery is in Virginia, about a 30-minute walk across Memorial Bridge from the Vietnam memorial. Other options include a hop-on/hop-off bus (see “Plan Your Trip”) or Metro (take the blue line one stop from Foggy Bottom/GWU to the cemetery).
Where to Stay
Splurge: Located on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, about a 21-minute walk southwest to the memorial, the 335-room Willard Intercontinental Hotel is a D.C. icon known for its regal decor, custom cocktails (mint juleps are a hotel favorite) and 200-year history. Abraham Lincoln stayed for 10 days before his inauguration in 1861, and Martin Luther King Jr. finished his “I have a dream” speech at the hotel in 1963. Rooms from $322
Save: HGTV named the sleek Hotel Hive, about an 11-minute walk south to the memorial, one of “10 micro hotels that are design meccas.” Its 83 tiny rooms range in size from 125 to 250 square feet, but big perks include a rooftop bar, soundproof walls and no pet fees. Rooms from $93
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Where to Dine
Splurge: Imperfecto may sound more like a sketchy taco joint than a recent addition to D.C.’s fine dining scene, but local foodies love this restaurant’s Latin American and Mediterranean flavors (near the Foggy Bottom/GWU Metro station, or drive west on Pennsylvania Ave. from the memorial). Try the braised lamb terrine.
Save: For a more casual experience and classic American food, head to Circa in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood, across the street from the Foggy Bottom/GWU station. Choose from salads (the sesame-crusted tuna salad is a winner), Angus beef burgers and tasty flatbreads.
COVID-19 Update: The District of Columbia, which has extended is public emergency orders through at least Jan. 7, 2022, requires that all people over age 2 must wear a mask in indoor public spaces within the city regardless of vaccination status.
Ken Budd writes frequently on travel for AARP. His work appears in the 2020 edition of The Best American Travel Writing, and he has written for National Geographic Traveler, The Atlantic, The New York Times, Travel + Leisure and The Washington Post Magazine. He is the author of The Voluntourist.