WASHINGTON – The Wall stands between the girl and a War.

The girl presses her fingers against the granite. Her fingers run along the names cut into the black stone.

“That is Nana’s brother,” a man is explaining to the girl.

“But how did he get inside the wall?” the girl asks.

Her question hangs near the Wall. It is an innocent question, the kind of question the Wall must have heard often since its dedication 25 years ago. Simple questions: Why him? Why me? Where is he? People sliding their fingers along its spine, over the etchings of diamonds that signify the dead and crosses that signify the missing. Fingers traveling over the Nicholases, Davids, Floyds, Rogers, Jesses – more than 58,000 names.

Over the east panel, west panel, up, down, fingers traveling over the stone, trying to dig inside it. Searching for names, for memories.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial stands there cut in the earth, holding within it the names. The hurt. Things whispered. Things said and unsaid – absorbed in that stone. Watching over things people leave behind.


Measuring the losses of war. All wars.

If you stood near the Wall on a clear fall day, what would you hear? What would you see?

A woman in pink lipstick and black velvet unfolds a poem. “They sent your body back naked without your wedding ring. … Now I lay you down to sleep.” It took her 23 years to be able to write it. Beneath her black sunglasses, her eyes water. She is still crying for her first husband, her high school sweetheart. He helped her with math. She helped him with English. They married at 19. He lived for five days after his helicopter crashed in Nam. He died on Nov. 2, 1969. She couldn’t cry then. “Military families in the public eye had to keep a stiff upper lip,” says Ivy Bigbee, 60, who lives in Centreville, Va. She still isn’t over it. “It never goes away,” she says. “It’s always with you.”

Up the hill from the Wall, a man is strumming a guitar and singing about war. You think of Iraq as he sings a haunting refrain: “Looks like they’ll be building another wall / Looks like they’ll be building another wall.”

And on another day, people are reading the names in the rain. Participants in a ceremony will spend 65 hours calling out all the names in the chronological order of their deaths.

Memorials provide a way to tell the story of war to people who were there and people who were not. Explain a past. Trigger memories.

Remind people of what happened, what was lost: Youth. National honor. Life.

The Wall is a place where people leave parts of themselves behind.

“I have always believed that each visitor helps complete that circle that I intended with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial,” Maya Lin, designer of the Wall, says in a statement about the memorial’s 25th anniversary. “Each one of us, when we visit, puts ourselves into the time and the memories held within its walls. And, in a way, we complete the piece.”


Two men in leather biker pants and jean vests walk west and stop. They are John “Rerun” Wincz, 59, and Tony Vetuschi, 61.

“Can you see? That’s not it. One hundred twenty-seven, you said, 12 E?”

“I’m counting the dots.”

“I don’t see it.”

“There! You’ve got it! Let me get a picture. Wait – there is too much sunshine.”

“Let me get closer. But if I get down, you are gonna have to help me get back up.”

They got up early in the morning, hopped on their motorcycles in New Jersey and rode down I-95 in 36-degree weather. Came down to get a picture of an MIA flag in front of the Wall to send to a family back in Jersey, “for a brother we never knew,” Vetuschi says.

The gray reflections of Wincz and Vetuschi are mirrored in the Wall. But when they look into the Wall, they see their younger selves. See war’s loss.

“Not only is it loss of life,” says Wincz. “I was 19 when I got to Nam. I felt like I was 50 when I left. One of the losses of war was my youth.”

Vetuschi got to Vietnam when he was 19. He stayed for two tours. “When I was 21, they were calling me an old man. On my second tour, I remember New Year’s Eve. There were a whole bunch of new guys. I looked at them and thought: What the hell are they celebrating for? Do they know what they are in for?”

Vetuschi says when he got back to the States, what was happening in the country was crushing. Protesters were yelling against the war, people wouldn’t even hire Vietnam vets. There was shame, few parades. There was war’s trauma. Messed-up heads. The struggle to explain what they had to do in war. Vetuschi had been to hell.

A park ranger makes a pencil rubbing of the name Vetuschi came to collect. “Take that home and coat it with shellac,” the ranger says. “Or if you have an old lady, borrow some hair spray.”

Vetuschi laughs. He married but has long since been divorced. “One of us was too hard to live with,” he says.

“I got to get an old lady now?” he says to the ranger. “Can’t I just go out and buy some hair spray?”

At either end, the Wall begins at a point mere inches high, where the onlooker stands taller than it. As one walks toward the center, the person seems to steadily decline. The Wall grows higher and higher, taking on a greatness, until it stands higher than any man. And the onlooker stands diminished by “any man’s death.”

Andrew Smith, a tourist, is standing close to the Wall, measuring the losses of war. “A lot of people dead,” Smith says. “A generation lost, basically. They can’t come home. Obviously, they are not setting up families. War leaves mental illness. Troops come back shellshocked. Violence in the home. Depression. Angry with the state, if the war is not one they feel they know what it was about. Some of them joined the Army to get education or to get out of poverty. They go to war and see friends die. They feel it’s a waste of life, if they can’t see the purpose of the war.”

He stands back. “The Wall is pretty daunting, really. It’s stark. A very simple memorial, but very powerful. Each life in it. It spells out how futile war is.”


Earl “Butch” Hovermill, 60, served in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970. He was a rifleman and a mortar man. His first station was at the DMZ – the demilitarized zone. He was 21 when he went. He is now a park ranger, explaining the Wall to tourists.

Hovermill has been working the Wall since not long after the day it was unveiled. In more than 20 years, he has seen much.

“This is not a wailing wall,” he says. “There is a lot of healing that goes on here. Coming down here is part of the healing process for the veterans.”

A tourist interrupts Hovermill and asks him the difference between the crosses and the diamonds etched between the names. “You see, when we get the remains back, they change the cross to a diamond,” Hovermill says. The diamond signifies death. His fingers press against the Wall. And stop at a name with a cross. “You see, he is still missing. In the event he were to come home alive, they would put a circle around the cross, the medical symbol for life. That has not happened yet. I’m sure if that were ever to happen you would hear about it. It would be news.”

A man interrupts Hovermill: “My brother is up there. January 6th. He was one of the early ones.”

“He’s got a lot of good company up there,” Hovermill says.

Good company.

Some veterans can’t do it, can’t make it all the way down to the Wall. Their emotion holds them back. “Some will stand at the tree line,” Hovermill says. “It’s as close as they will get because they lost so many friends. We call them tree-line veterans.”

You see them in the middle of the night. Standing about 100 yards from the Wall, back in the trees, feet pressed against the grass, unable to move closer. Too many friends inside the Wall.

AP-NY-11-10-07 1105EST

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