Guiding: The Wall and Ritual

The Vietnam Veterans Wall, opened in 1982, is a shade under 500 feet long with over 58,000 names of those killed or missing etched into its shiny black panels.

While other war memorials also list names, the Wall stands alone for its enveloping design and enormity.

The names take center stage, a tidal wave of death.

They receive us as we both descend and are immersed–nothing intrudes to interrupt their force.

Nothing, that is, except us.

It is said that our reflected selves represent the present to their past.

When a Vietnam veteran descends and touches the Wall a sort of equation is solved as life and death meet and time stands still, if even for a second.

The Wall may be unadorned but visitors seek to change that by bringing things which are laid in the well directly beneath the names in a daily ritual of re-creation.

Items are brought both by persons honoring someone they know as well as those who are fulfilling an assignment or obligation.

Some are personal while others are prosaic.

The giving/leaving of items is now an accepted ritual, as much a part of the Wall as the names.

It has been said that the listing of the names is too stark– it would be ironic if a purpose of the ritual was to humanize a memorial which derives power from its rawness.

Perhaps in the end, humans are more than their names.

Any day there can reveal a hidden gem but a recent day delivered a trove of handmade artifacts to honor, remember and inspire.



  • Victoria Huckenpahler says:

    A very poetic exposition, Eric. What strikes me most forcibly about the Wall when I visit is the feeling of endlessness. Like a nightmare that won’t quit. The personal mementos left behind can be very haunting. One I saw, left by a grieving ex-girlfriend, read: “I now have a son. He should have been yours.”

  • Susan Nestleroth says:

    What a beautifully written essay, and the artifacts you’ve photographed at the Wall are real treasures. I know mementos like these appeared often in the first few years after the Memorial’s dedication, but these days, I mostly see flags, flowers, and handwritten notes. Did you take the photos yesterday, by any chance? As I was walking away from the Memorial with my tour group at about noon, I passed many men who appeared to be Vietnam era veterans and were heading for the wall.

  • Dusk, September 23, 1968

    In the South China Sea, the USS Intrepid is launching and landing 24 Skyhawk A-4’s and support aircraft every 90 minutes. The work is hard for the entire crew. 12 hours on 12 hours off. Steam upwind, then downwind. Launch and recover.

    Occasionally a plane will “crunch” during landing. “Hung Bombs” routinely release upon landing, bounce on the deck and splash harmlessly into the ocean. The days and nights are 99% filled with routine and hard work.

    Towards dusk, word comes down about a damaged Skyhawk attempting to land. There’s a little more tension now. We only see the light on the wing. We’ve seen thousands. This one indicates the bird’s in trouble. All eyes are on it for the 30 second final approach. Count 30 seconds.

    Nose up, nose down. Too fast, too slow, and upon touch down, way too slow. The Skyhawk gives up the will to fly, makes a left turn and crashes into the deck, the landing signal officer’s platform and then the ocean.

    Big explosion and “birds” in the air with nowhere to go. They’ve got to land or crash, we have to make the deck ready. Perform. Do your job. Two dead, one dying and one badly injured.

    Bobby Lee Spencer is dying. He was the radio man for the Landing Signal Officer. His left leg and right arm were ripped from his body by the A-4. We put him into a litter and immediately took him to the operating room where he died.

    I visit his name on the wall. Panel 42W, Line 2. I think about sacrifice and I often wonder if anyone else even thinks about Bobby these days. His death hurts more now than it did at dusk, on the 23rd of September, 1968. Now I’ve got the time.

    bruce edgerly roemmelt
    Reflection placed at the base of 43W every 23rd of September

  • Larry Kupperberg says:

    As a Vietnam veteran-1967-1968, I well remember the reception which many returning vets received when they returned home. I believe that the Vietnam Memorial is the major factor in how this country now respects those who served. I know that my sadness has not changed since the first time I stood next to it.

  • Bud Brown says:

    I remember it from “Vulture’s Row” on the O-7 level. I was an ET in Radio 9 and watched almost every strike, night and day. Heading to the 75th Anniversary next week. Memories!

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