After watching the film The Deer Hunter, Vietnam veteran Jan Scruggs decided that his fellow soldiers needed a tangible symbol of recognition from America of their service and sacrifice. By 1979 a memorial fund was formed, and in 1980 land in Constitution Gardens was authorized for the memorial placement. A design competition was announced, and 21-year-old Yale architecture student Maya Lin earned the unanimous selection.
The central element of Lin's memorial is the shiny black granite wall in a wide V shape, with one "arm" directed toward the Lincoln Memorial and the other toward the Washington Monument. The faces of visitors are reflected in the walls bearing the etched names of the 58,318 men and women who died in combat or are listed as missing in action (MIA).
Those declared dead are marked by a diamond; those MIA are marked by a cross. If the person currently marked as MIA returns alive, a circle is placed around the cross. If his remains are identified, a diamond is superimposed over the cross.
The names of the first men killed (in 1959) start at the highest point of the wall, on the right arm, and continue toward the shorter end. The names resume on the far, short end of the left arm, continuing back toward the junction of the two walls. This way the first deaths and the last deaths (May 15, 1975) meet in the middle. Directories are placed near the wall for visitors to look up names.
The design choice proved controversial, and eventually a flag and figurative sculpture of servicemen was added to the plan. The memorial wall dedication on November 11, 1982, was accompanied by a 56-hour reading at Washington National Cathedral of all the engraved names of the dead.
While The Wall itself has garnered much attention, other features of the memorial site include The Three Serviceman statue, the Vietnam Women's Memorial, the In Memory plaque, and a flagpole that flies both the U.S. and the MIA-POW flag. That pole carries the insignia of the five branches of the Armed Forces.
Young, armed, and wearing jungle combat gear, The Three Servicemen's gazes are fixed on the wall. Veterans have stated that while there are distinguishing characteristics for each man, they still feel like they could be any soldier.
The bronze statues were created by artist Frederick Hart, who interviewed dozens of veterans and watched film footage and documentaries from the war so that he could execute an artwork that "bespeaks the bonds of love and sacrifice that is the nature of men at war."
In another grove of trees sits the Vietnam Women's Memorial, another figurative sculpture depicting three nurses and one wounded soldier. One nurse sits upon sandbags, holding the wounded man while another searches the sky for help—perhaps a helicopter airlift. A third one kneels behind the sandbags, forlornly holding an empty helmet in her hand.
The artist, Glenna Goodacre, has stated that in this vignette, the young man is saved by the actions of these women—she wanted this artwork "to be a monument for the living." The names of the eight women military women lost in the war are inscribed on the wall, and there are eight trees in the sculpture's grove.
The In Memory plaque, dedicated in 2004, is near The Three Servicemen and honors the men and women who died as a result of their service in Vietnam.
Many who visit leave behind items in memoriam to those that have served. The military dog tags, flowers, war medals, photographs, and even favorite toys left behind aid the healing process.