When I came home from the Vietnam War in 1972, our nation was bitterly divided. As we all know, the war was not easy, nor was it popular. When time came to honor those who had fought it, the process was likewise neither easy nor popular. Plans for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington met adversity at many turns. But The American Legion was an advocate from the very beginning, raising $1.17 million for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF), making our organization the largest single contributor.
Maya Lin’s concept for the Wall we now consider a national treasure received considerable public criticism. The Legion never weighed in with an opinion about the aesthetics. Rather, as then-National Legislative Commission Director E. Philip Riggin put it in a 1988 letter, “we supported the process within which artistic decisions were made.” The American Legion stood by Lin and the panel of judges that deemed her design the best possible tribute to our fallen comrades.
Dedication ceremonies took place on Nov. 13, 1982, at the culmination of a five-day “National Salute to Vietnam Veterans.” Legionnaires from across the country participated in the parade and helped visiting Vietnam veterans and their families with lodging. Gen. William C. Westmoreland praised the Legion for its “unwavering support of the memorial” and added that “the Vietnam veteran has a loyal friend in The American Legion.”
Concerns over the design, location and general message of the memorial have been forgotten since then. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial has become the most visited memorial in a city full of them. It is a place of great solemnity, respect and honor, and continues to evolve as new generations interpret the war and its meaning.
The next phase is an Education Center at the Wall. The Legion has passed two resolutions supporting the center, which is meant to be a place where the lessons of the war, its impact on our country, and the bravery of those who fought it, can be shared for decades to come. At a ceremony in March commemorating the 30th anniversary of the memorial’s groundbreaking, the concept for the center was unveiled. The VVMF has a goal of housing within the center a “Wall of Faces” that will include a photo to go with every name on the Wall. Those who wish to contribute a photo or learn more can visit the Education Center website.
While a national monument to honor those who gave their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan will eventually be built in Washington, the Vietnam center includes plans to incorporate those most recent fallen heroes into its design, as well. A visit to the center will, in fact, begin with a walking history of America’s wars. “Patriotism will be shown to be timeless,” the center’s website proclaims.
As we observe Memorial Day this month, let’s acknowledge that every ceremony, every monument and every name etched into the Wall are all part of the same chain, forged through history, forever connecting “those who served, those who fell and those who wait at home.” We welcome plans for the new education center as another important link in that chain.