Anyone who has been to Washington, D.C.’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial cannot help but be moved. To describe its central structure, known as ‘the wall,’ you wouldn’t expect much. It’s a long, curving black granite wall with the names of the service men and women lost during the Vietnam conflict etched into it. It sounds like any other memorial marker you might see anywhere. Until you stand before it and really look.
You look at the names of the 58,272 human beings who never got a chance to finish their lives. Who died often terrible deaths at sometimes impossibly young ages. Of those, 1,200 are still listed as missing. Stand in front of that memorial and watch adult men touch an etched letter and weep. Watch the children who never knew their fathers lay flowers, photographs, dog tags and other mementos at the base of the wall. Listen to people share memories in subdued voices.
There are grander memorials in Washington, D.C. to be sure. But few are as powerful through sheer implication of loss. Fifty-eight thousand, two hundred and seventy-two people with their own wishes, hopes and fears. Their own faces.
A volunteer group led by memorial founder and president Jan Scruggs is dedicating itself to revealing those faces. Scruggs and about 200 volunteers have been asking the family, friends and loved ones of veterans on the wall to send in a photo of their soldier. The hope is to have all the photos ready to display in an education center slated to open its doors near the memorial in 2014.
The group wants the public to truly see those who were lost. Not just as names in stone, but as the living, breathing, laughing and loving people they were. People who had plans for a future which never happened.
Vietnam was not a popular fight. Not with the public, politicians or the world at large. As a result those who fought for their lives and returned came back to more harassment than fanfare. They did not receive the glory their predecessors from the World Wars did, nor those who fought in later wars would. Soldiers returned to songs of protest, not gratefulness or victory. Vietnam veterans have struggled for their rights. From the right to be honored to the right to pensions, decorations and acknowledgement from the government and the citizens of the country they battled in the name of. All while still fighting their own demons.
Gathering the faces of those lost in one place out of respect and to educate a public sorely in need of teaching is another step in the right direction. Whether we approve of any conflict or war our country is involved in, we owe it to those who are fighting in our names to respect what they have given. This is true of any situation in which a United States soldier is lost. We need to see these faces.
For more information about this and other projects, go to www.buildthecenter.org.