There are general messages of support for U.S. troops stationed around the world and for the fallen soldiers who gave "the full measure for us."

"We will not forget you or your sacrifice," reads one of the Christmas greeting cards hanging on the holiday tree at the middle of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. "Gone too long."

And there are the heartbreakers, the words to family and friends lost long ago but not forgotten:

"Billy, not a day goes by that we don't think about you and wonder why and what would have become of you and our families. We are all OK. Mom has her days but is still going. Frank and Ken both passed away in the past two years. I guess us old Vets are starting to fade away."

The words of a nurse, her pledge unforgotten:

"I made a promise to so many of you young boys I would never forget, and I never will -- even stronger now than so many years ago as I held your bodies in my arms. You will stay young forever! I love you all."

For the fifth year, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund has solicited and displayed Christmas messages to the living and the dead, some cards sent from as far away as Europe and Vietnam. This year, about 3,000 cards arrived -- the most yet -- prompting the staff and volunteers at the memorial to double the height of the Christmas tree to eight feet.

The fir, decorated with cards attached by red, green and white ribbon, sits at the center of the obtusely angled V of polished black granite. It was erected Monday morning after a brief ceremony attended by representatives of the Gold Star Mothers (those who lost a child in combat), the Blue Star Mothers (those with a child serving in the U.S. armed forces), the Paralyzed Veterans of America, volunteers who serve as guides and interpreters along the Wall, and members of the public.

"Today we take time out . . . to remember our friends on the Wall and their families. We also remember and pray for the thousands of Americans serving our country all over the world today," said Harry G. Robinson III, chairman of the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts, which advises the federal and D.C. governments on proposed public building projects.

"The empty space at the table is especially difficult during the holidays," he said, "and we remember the families and friends missing their loved ones."

So many cards were received this year that an overflow of hundreds of messages fills three boxes under the tree. Weather permitting, the fir will stay up until New Year's Day. The cards then will be collected, catalogued and placed in a National Park Service warehouse, which serves as a repository for some 65,000 items that have been left at the Wall since it was dedicated 20 years ago. Engraved on the memorial are 58,229 names of those who were killed in the Vietnam War or who remain missing.

Most of the messages were patriotic, nostalgic, mournful. But a few conveyed an unresolved anger:

"You gave your body parts, blood, sweat, tears -- even your lives. We were taught to love, respect, and honor those in power. . . . Those same officials in power lied to you and many others. May they meet their maker for the final judgment for what they did. We honor you for what you did."

And despair. The words of a mother for her still-tortured child:

"My son Thomas is still having nitemares of Vietnam and not much help is comming his way. . . . I'm 85 years old so I don't know how much longer I will see him suffering with his pains and nightmares."

On a bright, sunny afternoon this week, as visitors walked along the Wall, almost all paused at the tree to read some of the cards. Some turned away in tears. Others simply shook their heads in sympathy. All seemed touched.

"Dear Duane, How are you doing, buddy?" said one card. "Well, it's 34 years now since that day in May 1968. By the way, my son married your niece and they have a boy and girl now. The boy has alot of your side of the family in him -- looks and attitude. Well, ole friend, we all miss you and I'm looking forward to seeing you one day again."

Another said: "All of us still here thank those who are remembered for their sacrifice. May Freedom Always Ring!"

"After September 11, I don't know if all this makes a bigger impact," said Lori Huffman of Seattle, who is in the Washington area with her family to visit relatives for Christmas. "But it's very special."

Annabelle Barrera of Woodbridge, who has visited the Wall several times and this week brought her daughter, sons, cousins and cousin-in-law to the memorial, stopped reading the Christmas cards because the messages made her cry. Yet she understood the value of the handwritten notes.

"Through this they still live, and I think that's important. It is good to come here once in a while, to remember their memory and to pray for them," Barrera said.

"It's not just coming and looking at the names, but honoring the memories and giving respect," she said. "We don't know these people, but still . . . "

Above, Lance Cpl. Chris Cummings, a Marine Corps Reservist from Richmond, reads one of the record 3,000 letters sent to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund this holiday season. To his right, and reflected in the Wall's gleaming granite, is the fir tree whose branches are filled with the messages. At left, Michael Caise of Leominster, Mass., and Karen Kase of Sterling, Mass., examine some of the greetings on the eight-foot-tall fir tree.Colin Osburn of Austin pauses to read some of the hundreds of cards hanging from a fir tree at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.