“You just can’t help but feel a lump in your throat when finally find yourself standing in front of the wall,” said a friend.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is everything everyone has ever told you – and more.
Earlier this week I found myself waking up at sunrise to bike through Washington, D.C., and the national monuments around it.
Minutes from my hotel I found one of the community’s public bike rental racks and was quickly on the road.
With traffic low and the monuments silent from visitors, with the exception of an occasional runner or a squirrel hunting for breakfast, this was my opportunity to explore the city in an almost intimate manner.
Over the course of a couple of hours I visited nearly every site along the National Mall while the sun silently worked to illuminate the eastern horizon. And as if the morning needed any additional poignancy, the date on the front page of the newspaper in my hotel room reflected the date of September 11th.
But with all the visits I made that morning, I found myself completely unprepared for the emergence of emotions residing inside me while at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
With all respect to the other monuments you’ll find in the National Mall, there is a tangible pall that overcomes you when you arrive at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Approaching he monument I noticed a statue of three life-size soldiers standing together, gazing in the direction of the subterranean stone. In contrast to most any other statues in D.C., these are laden with realistic touches so as not to needlessly glorify those they represent. Clothes are well worn, shoelaces untied, and no two are dressed alike. The one thing they share is an almost haunting look that seems to reveal exhaustion and the need to be together in a brotherhood. Glamor, rightly so, is completely absent from the presentation.
Stepping down into the monument, which spans 70 black granite tiles, you find yourself seemingly absorbed into the powerful structure. Again, your body is involuntarily reacting to an overwhelming presence. And then you notice the names.
The sun was now beginning to leak through the leaves of the trees, reflecting directly onto the dark stone.
As I began to read the more than 58,000 names, I found myself noticing the breadth of ethnicities before me. The placement of each, completely uniform in typeface and size, only worked to emphasize that all were equal regardless of rank, family name or from what side of the tracks they were born. In this solemn space, much like in the face of death, everyone is equal.
As I reached up to trace a few of the names, I could feel my body reacting to its powerful surroundings. My heart rate became slow, my footsteps softened, my head slightly tilted downward. And much like my friend warned me, I could feel my throat tighten in reaction to the realization of where I stood and what it represented.
Sometimes we can get busy with life and temporarily forget to fully appreciate the families who offer the ultimate sacrifice for our nation. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, however, will reawaken your emotions for all who’ve fallen for our nation over time. And this, to me, makes it a masterpiece.
For while standing before this modest, imposing structure, you’ll discover all of you emotions are not the same.
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