They weren't supposed to be there, he told them, it isn't officially open. But they pleaded that they had to go back to Minnesota that night, and had to find the name. John Wheeler, chairman of the board of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, could not refuse. He leafed through the big "Directory of Names" he was carrying, found the name of Thomas George Kolinski and led his father and mother to panel 44-E.

Edward Kolinski, a white-haired man, narrowed his gaze to his son's name. Tears sprang to his eyes. He fell to one knee and aimed his camera up to line 48. Then he got up, took out a handkerchief and walked a few steps away.

His wife, Mary, bowed her head.

She found the memorial "gruesome looking."

"It's different," said her husband. But they seemed oddly satisfied as they set off to look for three other names among the 57,939 that are carved in stone in the chronological order of their dying.

Black-haired Helane Howlett of Tampa, Fla., was not looking for names. She had a different errand. Her husband, a totally disabled veteran, had asked her to put a white rose at the memorial.

She glanced up at the names of the dead. "He is still living it," she explained to Wheeler. "He doesn't sleep a night without a nightmare, he doesn't have a day without a flashback."

"This is the way it ought to be," she said of the wall. "They should be remembered. People spat on them when they came back. It doesn't glorify war."

Edward Kanuss from Harrisburg, Pa., was staring up at the names, not searching.

"I feel I have a part in this," he said.

He had been a member of a draft appeal board.

No, he didn't regret having sent men to the war. His son had not gone. He was in college -- and deferred.

"If we have another war, we might not do that," he said thoughtfully.

A man came up to Wheeler. "I'm looking for my brother," he said.

The name of Richard H. Davis, who died on April 30, 1970, was located. Jim Davis likes the memorial -- "a belated acknowledgment."

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial will be, Wheeler hopes, "the first step in a healing process." So far it has, like anything to do with Vietnam, set off an ugly controversy, a new round of threats and name-calling.

It is a wall sunk into the earth, not visible from Constitution Avenue. It is a uniquely somber war memorial. It is a powerful, gleaming declaration that says simply, "In war, young men die; here are their names."

The starkness so affronted some of its patrons that they demanded the addition of a statue and a flag. To others, that is a touch of Norman Rockwell in the middle of a Dante-like statement, one which quarrels with the dark majesty of a wall constructed to bear the unbearable grief and pain of the only war in our history where the men who fled it were honored more than those who fought it.

The memorial was constructed with subscriptions. Jan Scruggs, a wounded combat veteran, gave his own money to start it. Wheeler volunteered to help.

He is the antithesis of the Vietnam veteran stereotype, the haunted doper. He is special counsel to the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. A veteran, he still has no views about the war beyond that it was "not well managed" -- a characterization befitting a graduate of the Harvard Business School, where the Army sent him in 1969. The campus was aflame with demonstrations; undergraduates were starving and lying to avoid the draft. No one mentioned the war to him; it was taboo. They knew he was going there. It never occurred to him not to.

When he heard of the death, in Vietnam, of his best friend and West Point classmate, Thomas Hayes IV, he went to the funeral at West Point. "I didn't tell anyone where I was going," he said, "when I got back, nobody asked me where I had been."

He spent a year in Vietnam at headquarters in Long Binh. He came back thinking "there was a chance" he should be an Episcopal priest. While stationed at the Pentagon, serving as a nuclear strike planner, he lived at the Virginia Theological Seminary. In the end he went to Yale Law School.

He and his wife, Elisa, who is now an Episcopal priest, were married before they ever talked about the war. They have five-year-old twins, a girl and a boy. Katie was born with an unformed trachea, and requires nursing attention around the clock.

Wheeler considers the possibility that Agent Orange caused the birth defect. He isn't sure that the fire zone where he served was not sprayed with "the juice." He feels no bitterness about it.

He talks about the "grace" and "redemptive aspects" of Vietnam, the special spirit of "my brothers who came back alive," who want to go on giving, who look after each other, who banded together to build a memorial and insisted that it name the name of everyone who died, so that the living -- even those who feel nothing but rage and shame about the war -- will know who fell, if not why.