-Blog post by Reed Sandridge from Washington, DC
Not even 15 minutes after the sun crested the horizon this past Saturday morning, 20 members of the Montgomery County Chapter 641 of the Vietnam Veterans of America grabbed buckets and brushes and walked down the stone pathway toward one of the most iconic memorials in the United States: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
“It started out I guess between 14 and 16 years ago,” Art Wong, who served in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968, told me. I later discovered that it’s actually been 17 years since he and Mike Najarian, both of Silver Spring, MD, started making the early morning pilgrimage on the first Saturday of every month between April and October to wash away the grime and dirt that builds up on the 58,261 names engraved on the black granite memorial.
“The Wall,” as it is often referred to, consists of nearly 500 feet of black granite from Bangalore, India. Carved out of the shadowy stone are the names of all military men, and eight military women, who lost their lives (or went missing) as a direct result of military wounds suffered during the Vietnam war. The sheer volume of names is breathtaking. An emotional place for many Americans, it is a place that I encourage everyone who comes to DC to visit and pay their respects.
Art was the first person I spoke to when I arrived. He was kind enough to take a few minutes and let me interview him. Click below to hear Art’s story as well as see the washing of the wall in the background.
“Wait a minute, don’t wash that section just yet,” Bill Gray, a silver star recipient, said as we washed the grime out of the crevices of the fallen soldiers’ names. He pulled out a small camera and took a photograph of the name of a guy he served with. “You can see a perfect handprint touching his name,” he said as he steadied his camera and captured what a loved one had left behind. He paused and turned to me, “I’ve got six buddies up here.”
The sound of brushes scrubbing back and forth, water hammering against the dark granite and conversations soft enough to be held in church were the only sounds. The reflection of the mirror-like wall overflows into my mind and I find myself reflecting on those who lost their lives half a century ago. How old were they? Where were they from? How sad their parents, siblings, spouses, children and friends must have been when they heard the news? How many dreams were washed away as quickly as the soapy water that ran down over the names in front of me?
What impressed me the most about these men, and yes they were all men with the exception of my friend Patricia who also pulled herself out of bed at 0’dark thirty to come volunteer, was how friendly they were. As we wrapped up our work a few early rising tourists made their way to the memorial. There was no shortage of hellos, good mornings and respectful nods showering the visitors.
Although it was never spoken, it was clear that this monthly ritual was somehow comforting for the men. Old friends, both present and in spirit, come together each month to pay their respects and share memories, laughter and tears. Part of a poem written by Guy L. Jones, 43d Signal Battalion, Pleik Oct. 1968 – Nov. 1969, helps explain this:
A visit to the “THE WALL” will be many things to many people
But to me it has healed my soul
And made me feel proud to have been there.
I will be back on October 16th to lead a group of volunteers in cleaning the Korean Memorial. If you would like to help out, drop me an email.
UPDATE: I found this MSNBC story about the men mentioned in this blog post…enjoy!