Photo illustration by Matt Battaglia

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial project was plagued by problems from the start. Not only did the project’s leader, Jan C. Scruggs, have to contend with the fact that nobody had ever built a veterans memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., before, but many veterans and policy makers thought the design was too avant-garde. A giant wall of polished black rock etched with the names of the 58,256 American service members who were either killed or went missing in Vietnam seemed more reminiscent of the anti-war movement than the war itself. The project moved forward anyways and was completed in 1982. And it didn’t take long for the memorial wall to become, as Scruggs later described it, “something of a shrine,” for those who served in Vietnam — a testament to the adage, “if you build it, they will come.” On any given day you’ll see them, the veterans of the Vietnam War, among the crowds of chattering tourists. They appear, in some way, more anchored to the wall than everyone else.

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