Remembering Vietnam at the Wall

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Last month, as part of our American Icons series, we explored the history and enduring impact of The Vietnam Veterans Memorial. After the broadcast, we heard from dozens of listeners — including many veterans their family members — about what the Wall means to them.

“I’m proud to say my father was a Marine combat correspondent in the Pacific and was assigned to be part of the team that built the Iwo Jima memorial in Rosalyn,” says David DeChant, a former Marine who wrote us. “And so my four brothers and my mom were all part of that history.” DeChant continued that tradition by assisting Jan Scruggs, the man responsible for starting a campaign to build a Vietnam memorial. “I met Jan at the Lincoln Memorial one day — he was handing out flyers saying he needs help. Within a couple of days I volunteered to be with the operation.”

The night before the controversial memorial’s dedication, DeChant remembers talking with designer Maya Lin. “We were all so excited, everybody’s pumped on adrenaline, we were going to make history … and because I had a car Maya said, ‘I’d like to go to the memorial’ and I said, let’s get her done.” By the time Lin and DeChant arrived at the memorial, a huge crowd had gathered. One particularly upset vet approached Lin. “I can see this veteran now,” DeChant remembers. “He was beating on his right leg, which was a prosthesis, and he said ‘is this the best that our country can do for us? Is this the best you can do, young lady?”

Lin also remembers the encounter. “All I could think of is [that] it was working … because it was pulling out an incredible amount of emotion,” she tells Kurt Andersen.

DeChant escorted Lin out to prevent the encounter from escalating. But the experience, and the impact of the Wall, stays with him. “There was so much pain and anger that began to heal that week,” he says. “To see all the love, the tears, the affection, and of course the anger and sadness — all one crucible. Just very cathartic. It was one of the most incredible experiences I’ve had in my life.”

→ Listen to American Icons: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial – and share your stories about the Wall.

Music Playlist

  1. America (My Country 'Tis Of Thee)

    Artist: The O'Neill Brothers
    Album: Patriotic Music: Instrumental Patriotic Music, Vol. 2
    Label: Shamrock-n-Roll, Inc.
  2. Electric Counterpoint – Slow (movement 2)

    Artist: Steve Reich
    Album: Different Trains/ Electric Counterpoint
    Label: Nonesuch