After 25 years, the Wall speaks volumes

The first two Americans to die in the Vietnam conflict. The first of 58,000 more to come.

Retired generals, veterans, mothers, daughters, sons and widows began reading each of the 58,256 names etched on the black granite of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Wednesday, part of the memorial’s 25th-anniversary celebration.

“The names have become the memorial,” said Jan Scruggs, the veteran who in 1979 started pushing for the creation of the Wall. He is the president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.

Nearly 2,000 volunteers will spend 65 hours through Saturday reading each name in chronological order, only the fourth time it has been done since the Wall’s dedication on Nov. 13, 1982, when the names were first read across town at the National Cathedral.

“We are making the time to pay respect,” said retired Brig. Gen. George Price, one of the men who helped settle the controversy surrounding the memorial’s design in 1981. At his suggestion, a statue of three soldiers and a flagpole were added to the site.

Before this week, Vietnam veteran Bob Grimm had seen only pictures of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

The Waynesville, Ohio, resident served in the Air Force in Vietnam in 1966 and ’67, though his military career stretched until 1984. This week, the retired tech sergeant decided it was finally the right time to visit some old friends.

Slowly climbing the pathway toward the end of the V-shaped memorial, where the Wall shrinks from 10 feet at its peak to 8 inches, Grimm called it “sobering.”

“It’s awesome to see all the guys,” he said, his eyes red from tears.

Even after 25 years, the Wall packs an emotional punch.

The usual bustle of the monument stilled when a bugler played taps before the name-reading ceremony Wednesday. Schoolchildren, families, spectators and passersby paused for the somber piece, everyone’s gaze fixed on the Wall.

Then Hank Cramer, Harry Cramer’s son, read the first two names on the Wall — his father’s and that of another man, who died in 1956 and 1957. He was followed by author Stanley Karnow, who covered the conflict for Time magazine and wrote a definitive book about the war; Gordon Mansfield, Department of Veterans Affairs acting secretary; Mary Jane Kiepe, Gold Star Mothers president; and retired Gen. Joe Ralston, former commander of NATO forces.

Mansfield spoke earlier in the ceremony about the immense importance of the Wall, both as a means for the nation to heal after the divisive conflict and as a way to ensure that the soldiers who died will not be lost to history.

“As long as this Wall stands, they will always be remembered,” he said.

For Scruggs, the monument has already remained far more culturally significant than he imagined in 1982.

“We thought the memorial would be a big draw initially, but that then it would become a fraternal thing,” Scruggs said at a Wednesday news conference.

He envisioned that, five or 10 years after construction, the only visitors would have served in the military or otherwise had a personal connection to one of the names on the Wall. Instead, more than 4 million people visit each year.

“This has changed the way America mourns, changed the way the public deals with trauma,” he said.