STATEMENT OF P. DANIEL SMITH, SPECIAL ASSISTANT TO THE DIRECTOR, NATIONAL PARK SERVICE, DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR, BEFORE THE SUBCOMMITTEE ON NATIONAL PARKS OF THE SENATE COMMITTEE ON ENERGY AND NATURAL RESOURCES CONCERNING S. 296, TO REQUIRE A REPORT TO CONGRESS REGARDING THE REQUIREMENTS APPLICABLE TO THE INSCRIPTION OF VETERANS' NAMES ON THE MEMORIAL WALL OF THE VIETNAM VETERANS MEMORIAL

JUNE 3, 2003


 

Mr. Chairman, thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today to present the Department of the Interior's views on S. 296, a bill to require the Secretary of Defense to report to Congress regarding the requirements applicable to the inscription of veterans' names on the memorial wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Because the legislation authorizes a study that would be undertaken by the Department of Defense, the Department of the Interior has not taken a position on this bill. However, as the agency that serves as the steward of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, we have some brief comments about the subject of the study.

S. 296 would require the Secretary of Defense, with the participation of the Secretary of the Interior and others, to conduct a study to: (1) identify veterans who died in southeast Asia during the Vietnam era and whose names are not eligible for inscription on the memorial wall; (2) evaluate the feasibility and equitability of revising the eligibility requirements for the inscription of names on the memorial wall to be more inclusive of such veterans; and (3) evaluate the feasibility and equitability of creating an appropriate alternative means of recognition for such veterans. As we understand it, a primary impetus for S. 296 is to provide recognition for the 74 service members who died aboard the U.S.S. Frank E. Evans in June, 1969 as a result of a training accident while outside the combat zone. However, there could be hundreds of other veterans whose deaths were closely associated with military operations in southeast Asia during the Vietnam era who do not meet the Department of Defense's current eligibility requirements for inscription on the memorial wall.

We are sympathetic to the desire to recognize the sacrifices of men and women who gave their lives while serving our country during the Vietnam era, but whose names do not meet the eligibility criteria that was established by the Department of Defense 20 years ago when the memorial was first built. However, providing that recognition at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial could diminish the aesthetic qualities that make this memorial, in the view of many, one of the most emotionally moving memorials ever built.

We are concerned that adding a large number of new names to the memorial wall would detract from the power and beauty of the simple black granite wall that evokes such a strong emotional response in visitors. There are currently 58,235 names on the wall that are inscribed in the chronological order of the date of casualty. At the direction of the Secretary of Defense, the National Park Service permits additions to the memorial wall from time to time. Depending on the availability of space and the number of letters in a name to be inscribed, the inscription is placed as close as possible to the chronological order of the date of casualty. Space for additional names is becoming increasingly scarce. To add more than a few more names, the wall would need to be significantly redesigned. Any potential changes to the wall may carry a substantial risk of diminishing the power of this memorial.

We are also concerned about possible alternative means of providing recognition for veterans whose names are not eligible for the wall. Several design elements have been added to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial since the original wall was built. Each addition increases the risk that the original work, the simple black granite wall, will be diminished. We are, therefore, cautious about embarking on a path that could lead to the addition of yet another design element at the memorial, both for its own sake and also because it might encourage more additions in the future.

We are pleased that the study authorized by S. 296 would require consultation with the Secretary of the Interior, among others, so that if this legislation is enacted, we would have the opportunity to express these concerns. We would suggest that another entity that should be included for consultation purposes is the Commission of Fine Arts. As one of the commissions that reviews proposals for structures to be added to the monumental core, their views on the feasibility of providing recognition for an additional group of veterans at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial are critical.

That concludes my prepared testimony. I would be happy to answer any questions you or other members of the subcommittee may have.