The design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. sparked debate and introspection, awe and outrage, when it was proposed.
In the decades since, the black granite memorial has become a national shrine, a healing and holy place.
But not everyone who died during the Vietnam War era is on the Wall. And adding names is a cumbersome, bureaucratic process.
Almost immediately after the Wall was dedicated in 1982, requests started coming in from family members of individuals who had been left off, said Tim Tetz, director of outreach for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. That group created the Wall in 1979 and assembled the original list of names inscribed there from military records.
The requests have never stopped. “We didn’t figure almost 40 years later, we’d still be adding names,” he said.
VVMF transferred the memorial to the National Park Service in 1983 but continues to work with that agency to maintain the memorial site.
Over the years, Tetz said, the Department of Defense put in place criteria for inclusion on the Wall: death in the defined war zone; on a combat mission in or out of that zone; or within 120 days of returning home from wounds or sickness suffered in Vietnam. There is some leeway, Tetz said, for soldiers who died from their wounds later, in some cases many years later. DOD relies on the military branches to research the records of those submitted for inclusion.
But those criteria exclude many of those who served, including the 74 sailors who died when their ship, the USS Frank E. Evans, was struck during an international training exercise in 1969 in waters outside the Vietnam combat zone. And they don’t include the 93 Americans soldiers who died when Flying Tigers Flight 739 plunged into the Pacific Ocean en route to Vietnam in 1962.
The Wall was designed with soldiers’ names listed in order of their dates of death. When the military approves new names to be added, Tetz said they’re engraved in available space as close as possible to the correct date. “It’s not a science as much as it is an art,” he said.
But there is no place to squeeze in a group of 73 or 94 names, Tetz said, or to add another panel. “It would be contrary to the magical beauty that is the wall that Maya Lin designed,” he said, referring to the Yale architecture student whose memorial design was chosen from among more than 1,400 submissions.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial was meant to honor all those who served in the war, Tetz said. “The memorial was never intended to only be for the 58,276 who died,” he said. “It was meant to honor and remember all of the nearly 3 million people who served there. That is one of the things that a lot of people don’t appreciate.”
And that is something he has tried to convey when he has met with family members of those who died on the Frank E. Evans and on Flying Tigers Flight 739, Tetz said. “I always extend my condolences as an American and as a historian of the war,” he said. “I recognize that they were all doing their duty in uniform, and (their families) in some way feel like their duty or their role in the war was overlooked because they’re missing from the 140 panels that is the memorial.”
Many others died en route to Vietnam or outside the combat zone, he said, and finding a way to honor them all has been challenging. “There is no way to write a bill … that is going to accurately recognize and list all the hundreds of people who were a part of our war against communism during the Vietnam era and who are missing from that,” he said.
VVMF’s “great hope” was to include these stories in an education center that was supposed to have been built near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, he said. But about two years ago, the funding fell through, so “that’s no longer an option.”
These warriors could still be honored individually in the VVMF’s “In Memory” project, featuring the stories and photos of those who served during the Vietnam War. And VVMF is supportive of other means to honor all who served in Vietnam, he said.
But this patriotic holiday, Tetz said, he would like Americans to think differently about the monuments we erect to honor those who sacrificed their lives for a cause bigger than themselves.
“I think we have to recognize as a nation that our monuments and memorials, while they may list specific individuals or be of a specific individual, they are representative of the heroes amongst us who stepped forward to serve our country in time of need,” Tetz said.
Each statue or memorial “represents every single person who was bold enough during that time period to step up and make a difference,” he said. “And we have to be willing to say thank you to them no matter what, and realize that far and wide throughout our country, there are many who don’t get the recognition, but deserve it.”