It was a bright November day in 1980, when Maya Lin, then a 21-year-old architecture student at Yale University, first came to the National Mall and sat on the grass, contemplating how to design a monument that could honor millions of U.S. service members who died or served in the Vietnam War.
She did not know that what started as a homework assignment for a funerary architecture class would win a national contest and become the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, attracting millions of visitors a year and offering a place of healing for veterans and those who love them.
“I had a simple impulse — to cut open the Earth and to polish the Earth’s open sides,” Lin said of that day.
She was speaking to hundreds of veterans Saturday at a ceremony in front of the Wall to mark the 35th anniversary of the memorial’s dedication.
The wall, and its anniversary, became a central focus of the Veterans Day holiday in the nation’s capital. Saturday morning, Vice President Mike Pence joined volunteers to clean the granite wall. Later on, he placed a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns and address a group of veterans at Arlington National Cemetery.
The anniversary event, attended by Lin and Chuck Hagel, former Secretary of Defense, followed a four-day-long reading of each of the names of the more than 58,000 service members who were killed or lost in action and who are commemorated on the wall.
The Vietnam Memorial was first proposed at a time when America was still divided over a deeply confusing and unpopular war. Lin’s design for the memorial was selected from more than 1,600 anonymous entries, including from celebrated architects.
It was heralded for its simplicity, but it was met with controversy from the start.
Critics called it a “dirty ditch” or a “black scar” and said it was unheroic and disrespectful. (As a result of the debates, a bronze statue of three soldiers was later built near the wall to add a more traditional component to the Memorial. )
Frederick F. Sona Jr., a 69-year old U.S. Army veteran who traveled from Cliffwood Beach, N.J., for the ceremony, said he remembers those early debates. “Memorials are up, they aren’t down. They aren’t under the ground,” he said.
But he said he has come to see how it fits: Veterans keep their memories buried, he said. For a long time, he wanted nothing to do with the war.
He came home, got married, had three sons. But in the past 30 years, he has come to visit the Wall often, he said.
“It’s relieving — it relieves my emotions to be here,” he said.
At the ceremony, Lin said she knew the memorial needed to rise above the divisive politics.
She described her vision in more detail: “The walls would not be massive, but instead thin and light, so the names alone would be the object” of attention, and they would be “polished to a mirror shine” so visitors could see their reflection and feel a part of it.
The memorial would be deep enough underground to offer “refuge but not enough to become oppressive,” she said.
And she wanted the Wall to be in clear sight of the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument so people could see the veterans and themselves as part of “our nation’s fabric.”
At the ceremony, autumn foliage framed the dark wall. The U.S. Armed Forces’ color guard marched on the grass above the Wall, and the bright colors of the flags offered a stark contrast against the solemn backdrop.
Jimmy Grant of Oakwood, Ga., a U.S. Air Force veteran, said he was there the day the Wall was dedicated and has traveled back frequently since.
He said he enlisted in the military two weeks after he graduated from high school.
“A lot of us had no choice,” he said. “Our lives were planned for us.” For him, the Wall represents his generation.
“That Wall, it’s us,” he said.
In her remarks, Lin said she is gratified to have been a part of the veterans’ healing.
“If this memorial has helped to welcome you home and helped heal some of the turmoil and pain of that war and [helped] to embrace you and honor you in our nation’s capital, then I am deeply honored to have played my part in your story,” she said.