Washing the Wall to remember Vietnam vets

In the early morning, just as the sun breaks over the Capitol dome, a small group of volunteers gathers at the black granite Vietnam Veterans Memorial, that heart-breaking slash in the earth by the Lincoln Memorial on the Mall.

They quietly hook up hoses, attach nozzles and spray down the wall, removing a week’s worth of dust, dirt and debris. Then they fill up buckets with a mild detergent, switch to soft brushes and, starting on either end of the wall, begin to scrub. Countless fingerprints, smears and tears that have accumulated since the last wash, a week ago.

“I have 11 buddies on that wall, including my best friend from high school,” said Steve Nelson of District Heights, who served in the Army in Vietnam. He was turning on the water this month after the hoses were unkinked and extended.

So many hands have touched the Wall over the past 29 years. Most of these men and women have touched it, too, and it touches them even as they work to keep it clean.

“When I first came back, I thought my name coulda been on this wall,” said Robert Dunlap, a D.C. resident who served in-country during 1968 and 1969, and who helped clean the stone walkway. “When I first came down I could only be here at night,” a not-uncommon behavior of some vets in the first few years of the Wall’s existence, as they sought to mourn alone. “This wall right here brought us together,” he said.

The washing of the dead, with its religious resonances, arose out of frustration. In 1998, dissatisfied with the job that the National Park Service was doing and upset that bird droppings had filled in some of the engraved names, Jan Scruggs of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund took action. He handed 37 toothbrushes to visiting vets from Wisconsin, who scrubbed the filth away.

Members of the Silver Spring chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America and the Air Force Sergeants Association at Andrews Air Force Base stepped in and began monthly cleanings. A little more than a decade ago, the vets and the Park Service began working more closely together, and the organized weekly cleanings began. They expanded to the nearby Three Servicemen statue, the Vietnam Women’s Memorial and, on alternate weekend days, the Korean War Veterans Memorial.

Each year after the cherry blossoms are past, until the first snowfall, the volunteers turn up Saturdays and Sundays at 6:30 a.m., long before tourists arrive. The work takes less than hour. Many military veterans are among the regular volunteers, but there are also church groups, Boy Scouts, college sorority sisters, union members and a few people who visit the nation’s capital specifically for this duty.

Cleaning the Wall is a solemn duty, but not a cheerless one. On this particular Sunday morning, the volunteers work like a well-trained unit, teasing one another, engaging in friendly competition and remaining focused on the hour-long mission.

“You’re one of the few people in the park early in the morning,” said New Thanyachareon, the Park Service ranger who is the volunteer coordinator. “It’s not intense, not hard. There’s a lot of camaraderie.”

“It’s a show of respect. These aren’t just names, these are people who gave their lives for the freedom we enjoy. We’ve got to keep it clean,” said Mike Luftman, who was at the site with the Maryland chapter of the motorcycle group Rolling Thunder, which includes many veterans. “As a veteran and an American, this is probably one of the highest honors you can have, to make sure this monument is in pristine shape.”

The VVMF, which was the power behind the construction of the memorial in 1982, has recently raised the money to improve the lighting, maintain the landscaping, restore the nearby Three Servicemen statue and investigate the hairline cracks in the Wall.

More than 58,000 names are on the Wall. On Father’s Day last year, sons and daughters of some of those names were among the washers.

“I was a young boy during Vietnam and I remember a guy in the neighborhood being killed, the older brother of a friend,” said Gary Rendente, now a Virginia resident. “I try to wash certain panels because I promised I’d take care of him.”

If you’d like to volunteer to help wash the Wall, contact the National Park Service at (202) 426-6841.

Patricia Sullivan seeks out news about Alexandria and Arlington County for the Washington Post.
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