A Milestone For A Memorial That Has Touched Millions

On a recent evening, an elderly man in a navy-blue uniform stood in front of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, facing the wall's 58,256 engraved names. The setting sun cast a glow above the National Mall and down onto the reflecting pool to the east. At the base of the memorial, a row of spotlights threw light against the polished black granite wall in a way that created a steady, almost photographic alternation of shadow and illumination.

Visitors walking by disappeared into darkness, then re-emerged, then disappeared again, evoking the sense of the transience and reflection that the memorial, since its 1982 groundbreaking, has sought to convey.

On November 13, the memorial turns 25. The criticism that dogged the project in its early days--its unconventional design, its black color, its lack of ornamentation--has given way to appreciation of its simple, emotional power. "In the past 25 years, it has become something of a shrine," said Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund President Jan Scruggs, who conceived the idea of building a memorial in 1979. "It has helped people separate the warrior from the war, and it has helped a nation to heal."

As it happens, the memorial, on the eve of its anniversary, is caught up in a new controversy, this one concerning the design and construction of a Vietnam Veterans Memorial Center to be built near the wall. Critics of the proposed 35,000-square-foot center have raised a number of objections, including fears that the center--despite being built largely underground--would visually detract from the wall's solemnity.

Remembrance. The 25th anniversary will be observed starting on November 6 with music and poetry. Over the next four days, the names of American soldiers who died in Vietnam will be read aloud. The first such reading took place in November 1982, a time when soldiers who had returned from the war were barely in their 30s. Today, many of them have children that age or older, and some have grandchildren.

Veterans have embraced the wall in unexpected numbers, as has the general public. More than 3.6 million people visited last year, nearly triple the number of visitors to the White House and the Washington Monument combined. "I did not anticipate...how many people would come over the years and how often they would visit and return to this place," Maya Lin, the wall's designer, said in a statement.

At the time of its dedication, the memorial was enmeshed in controversy, most of which centered on the design and its unlikely designer, who was then a 23-year-old graduate of Yale University. In May 1981, a panel of jurors, including some of the nation's most respected architecture experts, had selected Lin's entry from more than 1,400 submissions; they praised it as "compelling." Not everyone concurred. Newspaper critics, politicians, and some veterans recoiled. Opponents blasted the design as "a black gash of shame," "a scar," even "a tribute to Jane Fonda."

Eventually, a compromise was hammered out, one that involved the placement of a supplementary statue, the Three Soldiers, at the site entrance in 1984. Among the vocal advocates for the statue was billionaire businessman Ross Perot, who backed the memorial but was among the early critics of the wall's design. "When the men came home, I promised them a memorial, with the one stipulation that they were happy with the design," Perot said last week. That they were. On the day of the dedication in 1982, the public reaction was nearly unanimous: "Bearded veterans wearing old fatigues can be seen reaching toward the names of remembered dead warriors, running their fingers across the letters," wrote one reporter.

Over the years, visitors have left behind more than 100,000 items--poems, wreaths, old photographs. "Nobody thought this monument was going to be a blockbuster," says Bill Lecky, the original architect of record. "At the time, there was all this brouhaha going o. But once it was there, the veterans loved it."

By Kent Garber