It is far more than a symbol, this luminous black granite memorial that juts out of the soft earth in a tranquil park on the Washington Mall. Not far from flat stretches of ground that were once the staging areas for massive antiwar protests, the Vietnam Veterans memorial is an unforgettable reminder of the terrible toll of war. More powerfully than a tribute to an unknown soldier whose life is lost to history, it immortalizes the individual lives and sacrifice of each of the 57,939 men and women who perished in the conflict.

Wednesday afternoon, Flavio Martinez 3rd crouched down on the grass in front of the memorial and extended his hand toward a name grit-blasted into the granite. His friend Darrell Edwards snapped one picture, and then another. Lorraine Sliger, arms folded against her chest, watched. They had driven 14 hours straight from East Chicago, Ind., to pay their respects to the memory of Emilio de la Garza Jr., a Medal of Honor winner, and a friend.

"He was a marine," said Martinez, who was an infantryman in Vietnam from 1968 to 1969. On April 11, 1971, he said, de la Garza was out on a patrol that had captured some Viet Cong prisoners. "They threw a grenade. He jumped on it. He saved the lives of the lieutenant and the sergeant. He was real quiet. I couldn't believe he joined the Marines."

"His father said he'd just decided to join," said Sliger, who is an officer in the American Legion Post named after de la Garza.

"We fought for close to five years to get something named after him," Martinez said. The Town Council came up with the idea of naming a boulevard after him. "But the people on the boulevard didn't want it." Finally, a new career center was named after him. The name of another school friend, Harold Gomez, is also on the memorial. "We played basketball together," Martinez said.

"Emilio had a wife and small baby when he was killed. He never got to see his daughter. Harold, I think he was just there two months before he was killed. It wasn't a war. It was a police action. That's what they always told us." He gestured with his hands, as if separating parts of a battlefield. "There was no 'that's your side' and 'this is your side.' You didn't know what you were in the middle of. You were just there."

Phyllis McAdoo Rowland of Orange County, Calif., came with her mother to see the memorial that bears the name of her brother, Glenn Paul McAdoo, who was killed in a land-mine explosion in 1969. He was 21. She has trouble talking about it still. She says it is even more difficult for her mother. "It's been really hard on her the last 10 yars. This is another reminder to her, yet she had to come.

"She didn't even want my brother to go. By then, they were going to Canada. But he just wanted to go. He was in school and a half a credit below where he was supposed to be. He was drafted right away and went in and said he wanted to get it over with. He was just three months short of coming home." Yesterday, 11 children whose fathers were killed or are missing in the war laid roses in front of the 70 panels of names. One of them was George Perry 4th, a senior at Woodson High School, who was 1 year old when his father, Army Capt. George Perry, was killed in 1966. "We placed the roses here as a special way of remembering our fathers and the men killed or missing in Southeast Asia." He thanked the crowd of hundreds of veterans and relatives "for sharing this special moment with us."

Then he turned the microphone back over to Army Col. Robert F. Foley, a classmate of his father's at West Point, who won the Medal of Honor in Vietnam.

The ceremony, like the memorial, was movingly simple. The oldest child was 18, the youngest 10. One wept openly. They placed a wreath of red roses and mums at the center of the memorial, where the panel bearing the name of the first man who died, in 1959, meets the panel bearing the name of the last man who died, in 1975. Folk singers from No JUDY MANN REMEMBERING

It is far more than a symbol, this luminous black granite memorial that juts out of the soft earth in a tranquil park on the Washington Mall. Not far from flat stretches of ground that were once the staging areas for massive antiwar protests, the Vietnam Veterans memorial is an unforgettable reminder of the terrible toll of war. More powerfully than a tribute to an unknown soldier whose life is lost to history, it immortalizes the individual lives and sacrifice of each of the 57,939 men and women who perished in the conflict.

Wednesday afternoon, Flavio Martinez 3rd crouched down on the grass in front of the memorial and extended his hand toward a name grit-blasted into the granite. His friend Darrell Edwards snapped one picture, and then another. Lorraine Sliger, arms folded against her chest, watched. They had driven 14 hours straight from East Chicago, Ind., to pay their respects to the memory of Emilio de la Garza Jr., a Medal of Honor winner, and a friend.

"He was a marine," said Martinez, who was an infantryman in Vietnam from 1968 to 1969. On April 11, 1971, he said, de la Garza was out on a patrol that had captured some Viet Cong prisoners. "They threw a grenade. He jumped on it. He saved the lives of the lieutenant and the sergeant. He was real quiet. I couldn't believe he joined the Marines."

"His father said he'd just decided to join," said Sliger, who is an officer in the American Legion Post named after de la Garza.

"We fought for close to five years to get something named after him," Martinez said. The Town Council came up with the idea of naming a boulevard after him. "But the people on the boulevard didn't want it." Finally, a new career center was named after him. The name of another school friend, Harold Gomez, is also on the memorial. "We played basketball together," Martinez said.

"Emilio had a wife and small baby when he was killed. He never got to see his daughter. Harold, I think he was just there two months before he was killed. It wasn't a war. It was a police action. That's what they always told us." He gestured with his hands, as if separating parts of a battlefield. "There was no 'that's your side' and 'this is your side.' You didn't know what you were in the middle of. You were just there."

Phyllis McAdoo Rowland of Orange County, Calif., came with her mother to see the memorial that bears the name of her brother, Glenn Paul McAdoo, who was killed in a land-mine explosion in 1969. He was 21. She has trouble talking about it still. She says it is even more difficult for her mother. "It's been really hard on her the last 10 yars. This is another reminder to her, yet she had to come.

"She didn't even want my brother to go. By then, they were going to Canada. But he just wanted to go. He was in school and a half a credit below where he was supposed to be. He was drafted right away and went in and said he wanted to get it over with. He was just three months short of coming home." Yesterday, 11 children whose fathers were killed or are missing in the war laid roses in front of the 70 panels of names. One of them was George Perry 4th, a senior at Woodson High School, who was 1 year old when his father, Army Capt. George Perry, was killed in 1966. "We placed the roses here as a special way of remembering our fathers and the men killed or missing in Southeast Asia." He thanked the crowd of hundreds of veterans and relatives "for sharing this special moment with us."

Then he turned the microphone back over to Army Col. Robert F. Foley, a classmate of his father's at West Point, who won the Medal of Honor in Vietnam.

The ceremony, like the memorial, was movingly simple. The oldest child was 18, the youngest 10. One wept openly. They placed a wreath of red roses and mums at the center of the memorial, where the panel bearing the name of the first man who died, in 1959, meets the panel bearing the name of the last man who died, in 1975. Folk singers from No Greater Love, an organization founded to help the children of men killed or missing in the war, sang "America the Beautiful" and "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," the wrenching antiwar song that filtered up from the Mall so many times during the years of protests. Yesterday, it moved many to tears as it asked the question the memorial will ask the ages:

When will we ever learn? Greater Love, an organization founded to help the children of men killed or missing in the war, sang "America the Beautiful" and "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," the wrenching antiwar song that filtered up from the Mall so many times during the years of protests. Yesterday, it moved many to tears as it asked the question the memorial will ask the ages:

When will we ever learn?